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Steve Phillips knew it was over the moment Scott Boras rattled off his list of non-negotiable demands. Alex Rodriguez was never going to play for his dream team, the New York Mets, not when A-Rod's agent was telling the team's general manager his client needed perks that would have made the world's greatest divas blush.
This was during the GM meetings of November 2000, and the agent and executive were squaring off inside Boras' hotel suite on Amelia Island, Fla. Derek Jeter, World Series MVP, had just prevented the Mets from winning their first title since 1986, and Phillips entered the room believing he had a shot to acquire a shortstop with superior physical talent, a slugger who would combine with Mike Piazza to form the game's most lethal offensive force.
|Alex Rodriguez was a much-coveted commodity after his Seattle days, but things with the Mets never worked out.|
But then Boras began asking for things that had nothing to do with A-Rod's alleged childhood fantasy of playing for the Mets. The list included a Shea Stadium office, a marketing staff, a merchandise tent at spring training, a luxury box, use of a private jet, and more billboards than Jeter could count.
The agent said some of the perks, not all, were absolutely required in any deal worth A-Rod's signature. Boras never mentioned a dollar figure in the meeting, and he didn't need to.
The Mets wouldn't even be offering Rodriguez cab fare home.
"We're not going to get him," Phillips told Mets PR man Jay Horwitz after he exited the meeting, Boras' famous binder in hand.
Texas paid $252 million to get him, Rodriguez and the Rangers suffered through a miserable three-year marriage, and A-Rod eventually surrendered his cherished position, shortstop, to escape to New York and play a river away from the team he later admitted he should have joined.
Friday night, when the Mets and Yankees open a three-game series in the Bronx, one might imagine what could have been had Rodriguez followed his heart instead of his agent.
The soon-to-be 36-year-old shortstop of the Mets could have found the soon-to-be 37-year-old shortstop of the Yanks behind the batting cage, and the two of them could have talked about life in the big city, about Bernie Madoff, and about the problems of growing old in a young man's game.
But the greatest intracity rivalry since Willie, Mickey and the Duke wasn't meant to be in the wake of the 2000 World Series, when Boras preyed on the insecurities of a second-place team in a first-place town and gift-wrapped the Mets a reason to stay true to a budget their owners didn't want to bust.
"I remember Steve coming back to our suite and telling everyone, 'You're not going to believe it, but this is what Boras wants for Alex Rodriguez,'" said former Mets executive Jim Duquette. "All of our jaws just dropped. We kept hearing how this was the place Alex wanted to play, but we knew then it wasn't going to happen."
All these years later, Phillips feels badly about his most memorable comment when the Mets officially eliminated themselves from the A-Rod derby, the one about avoiding a 24-plus-one-man roster.
"That label stuck to Alex, and I didn't mean for that to happen," recalled Phillips, who served as a baseball analyst for ESPN after he left the Mets in 2003. "But I just thought the rules had to be the same for everybody. Mike Piazza was the most low-maintenance superstar there was, with no entourage, only his brother and dad coming around once in a while. Mike always had the prettiest girl waiting for him after the game, and that was it. It was just Mike."
Of course, it would never be just Alex. Rodriguez didn't only want the Mets; he wanted everything the city offered Jeter, times 10.
Boras assured the Mets that any offer not including the required perks would be rejected, and the Mets took him at his word. They announced that the A-Rod-Piazza pairing had no chance of happening, inspiring many to wonder if Fred Wilpon (and Nelson Doubleday) had used the perks as a mere excuse to pass on a staggering nine-figure investment.
As it was, the Mets could have ignored Boras' bluster and made a bid for A-Rod that sounded like this:
We're offering you $180 million over 10 years to play for the team of your choice, with no extras tethered to the deal. You have 48 hours to accept.
If the Mets had leaked that offer to the news media, would Rodriguez have felt pressured to leave tens of millions on the Texas table to live out his own stated hopes and dreams at Shea?
"We never got to a number," Phillips said, "but I know there were conversations where it was clear we were not paying $250 million. I don't know what would've happened if we'd gone back to them with $170 million, or $180 million. I'm not sure if that would've been enough."
Neither Phillips nor Duquette nor another Mets executive, Omar Minaya, will ever know. But Phillips does have second thoughts about the one-team, one-set-of-rules dogma he embraced at A-Rod's expense.
|Steve Phillips admits he might do things differently, if he had the A-Rod negotiations to do over again.|
"I've looked at what some teams have done for players and yet still managed to win," Phillips said, "and it's made me question my inflexibility on structure."
The 2000 Mets were losing Mike Hampton and a bunch of fellow free-agent pitchers. A deal for A-Rod at, say, $18 million per (on top of Piazza's $13 million per) would have impacted the Mets' ability to build a championship-worthy roster and staff.
"Alex and Mike would have been amazing to look at back-to-back in the lineup," Phillips said, "but one star player doesn't do for a baseball team what it does for an NBA team."
On the other hand, Duquette said, "If we sign Alex that championship window would have stayed open a lot longer for us, and we might not go down the Mo Vaughn road or the [Roberto] Alomar road or the [Jeromy] Burnitz road."
The Mets traveled all those roads, none of them leading back to the World Series. At least they didn't have to deal with the Rodriguez scandal before the Madoff scandal.
A-Rod? He's a World Series champ no longer represented by Boras, an agent who was fired 10 years too late for the Mets.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."