Wednesday, August 3, 2011 Updated: August 5, 10:25 AM ET
A-Rod is Yankees' $305 million migraine
By Ian O'Connor ESPNNewYork.com
In the fall of 2007, the New York Yankees played their own game of poker when they put down $305 million on Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees were betting in salary and home-run bonuses that Rodriguez would be worth the trouble he was almost guaranteed to cause.
Brian Cashman, the team's general manager, didn't want to do the 10-year contract. Hank Steinbrenner, Cashman's superior, overruled his GM and betrayed his own pledge to exile A-Rod in the event the third baseman opted out of his previous deal.
The Steinbrenners, Cashman, team president Randy Levine -- they all knew that signing up Rodriguez meant signing up for an extended migraine a couple times a year. But they also knew A-Rod to be a hell of a slugger, a megastar vital to YES Network ratings and ticket sales at the new Yankee Stadium to come.
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So nearly four years later, do the pros outweigh the cons? Is the liberating championship that Rodriguez delivered in 2009, the first season at the new ballpark, worth all the unwanted drama and distraction he will surely keep creating through 2017?
Either way, this is the package the Yankees bought. This is the price they have to pay.
"This is classic Alex Rodriguez," one high-ranking baseball official said Wednesday night, after the commissioner's office announced it will interview A-Rod as part of its investigation into his alleged involvement in illegal high-stakes poker games.
"In a lot of ways Alex is no different than Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. He's a thrill seeker, and he does everything he can to be overt. He's a classic example of where we are in society, the age of celebrity, where everyone loves triumphs and tragedies."
This case could turn out to be neither. A-Rod's spokesman, Richard Rubenstein, is on record denying that his client participated in the poker games that reportedly included the likes of Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
Star Magazine reported that one poker player openly used cocaine in Rodriguez's presence, a claim that elevated the alert level inside baseball and Yankeedom. With investigators sorting through allegations the league said it is taking "very seriously," an MLB executive told ESPNNewYork.com's Wallace Matthews that a suspension is possible.
Six years ago, A-Rod was warned to stay away from the underground poker clubs he was reportedly frequenting. If this latest story proves to be true, perhaps A-Rod can argue he was never warned to stay away from Beverly Hills mansions and high-profile actors.
"It's always something with Alex," said a second baseball official. "The amount of energy everyone has to devote to him is unbelievable."
From PEDs to poker, Alex Rodriguez has been playing a game of shadows off the field.
The steroid confession. The half-baked story of his cousin securing the steroids. The re-emergence of the banned cousin at the team hotel. The link to Dr. Galea. The gambling allegations.
Alex Rodriguez has made himself a monument to high-maintenance living.
"I think I created a lot of that for myself," A-Rod told me in March. "I had a lot of maturing to do, and I've done that. I think a lot of the noise around me was self-imposed ... and I made it easier for you guys to write about me. But what I've done now is basically eliminated a lot of that stuff and just play baseball."
Following his steroid admissions and his hip surgery in the spring of '09, Rodriguez was ambushed in a Tampa diner by longtime friend Gui Socarras and Yanks PR man Jason Zillo. They shouted at A-Rod over breakfast, told him he had to change his self-absorbed ways.
On the eve of the World Series, Rodriguez credited that intervention for sending his inner diva to the bench. "They showed me tough love," A-Rod said, "and I thought from that breakfast on I've stayed with the plan and it's been a good plan."
But in A-Rod's world, good plans can only be followed for so long. No, a poker game among ultra-famous friends doesn't amount to the crime of the century, not when poker tournaments are all the televised rage. In fact, Rodriguez's business partners at the YES Network carried the New York versus Boston Poker Challenge and posted these casting call qualifications on its website:
• Poker Ability -- Can play No Limit Texas Hold 'Em against serious Players.
• Passion for Sports -- Especially the rivalry between Boston and New York.
• Personality -- A character that plays great on camera.
I mean, where does A-Rod sign up?
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On the other hand, you don't need a refresher course on Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe to understand why baseball gets nervous whenever ballplayers bet. Illegal gambling often attracts an unsavory element, often leaves even its wealthy participants in debt, and often inspires the stories of drugs and threatened violence over winnings and losses that colored this latest A-Rod report.
Rodriguez is recovering from knee surgery, and fighting the perception that his body is breaking down with six full seasons left to go on his contract. This poker investigation is the last thing he needs.
"But this is who Alex is," the high-ranking baseball official said. "This might turn out to be a temporary distraction, an annoyance, but everything sticks to Alex because he's a celebrity in the age of celebrity. People turn on ESPN and buy tabloids because of him."
A-Rod's employers get it. They fully expect that their third baseman will fire up another off-field twister an hour or two after he survives this one, and kick more dirt on the notion that the Yankees' $305 million gamble was a smart one.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."