A-Rod deal provides room to rebuild

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The A-Rod experiment is over. And the Texas Rangers are still in last place, just where they were before it started.

What was once a grand plan with visions of championships, a real-estate boom around The Ballpark in Arlington and a Hall of Fame plaque with a Rangers logo was scrapped Monday when Texas traded shortstop Alex Rodriguez to the New York Yankees.

Just 23 days after Rodriguez was named team captain, he was dealt for budding slugger Alfonso Soriano, a minor-leaguer to be named and, most important, tremendous financial relief.

"Things just didn't work out here," Texas owner Tom Hicks said, adding that he doesn't regret signing Rodriguez to a $252 million, 10-year deal in December 2000.

"He's such a special player. I thought it was the right decision at the time. I think someday fans here will be excited that he spent three years with us."

The Rangers are off the hook for $112 million of the $179 million left on Rodriguez's contract.

While Texas still owes $82 million plus interest through 2025, the tab is only $3 million this year and not more than $8 million in one year.

"We feel we now have the flexibility to get better," Hicks said.

Hicks said the newfound money will be used either to keep the Rangers' own players or to bring in free agents. An example was announced Monday: All-Star third baseman Hank Blalock is getting a five-year deal, locking him up through his first year of free-agency eligibility.

"Both of my baseball experts gave me their advice, and it was that we can build a championship team faster by doing this trade today," Hicks said, referring to general manager John Hart and assistant GM Grady Fuson. "I think that's what it's all about. We are rebuilding."

Three offseasons ago, Hicks agreed to the richest contract in team sports history because he considered Rodriguez a complete package, not just a great player.

He expected Rodriguez to lead the Rangers with his bat and glove and to use his personality to draw in more free agents, sponsors and fans. Attendance was supposed to surge, which could've sparked the building of restaurants and hotels on vast, vacant land Hicks owns around the stadium.

There were down-the-road dreams of Rodriguez challenging the career home run record and one day being enshrined in Cooperstown with a "T" on his cap, just like Nolan Ryan.

The only part that panned out was Rodriguez's personal success. He hit .308, with 156 homers (sixth-best in franchise history) and 395 RBI. He was the MVP last season, won three home run titles and was an All-Star all three seasons.

Yet the Rangers lost about 90 games each season he was here: 89, then 90, then 91, going a combined 216-270. They were last in the AL West each time, continuing a trend that began the year before Rodriguez arrived.

Attendance peaked at 2.8 million in A-Rod's first season, then dropped sharply. This past season, it was under 2.1 million, the lowest average crowd since 1990.

Because the trade basically was finalized Saturday -- delayed only by players' association approval Sunday and the commissioner's approval Monday -- the Rangers were ready to distance themselves from Rodriguez.

They announced the trade with a news release entitled "Rangers Acquire Two-Time All-Star Alfonso Soriano." The only details of Rodriguez's stint in Texas came in the ninth of 10 paragraphs.

Soon after, Hicks spread his side of the story by sending e-mail to season-ticket holders. In it, Rodriguez's last name was spelled with a "q" instead of a "g."

The team's Web site quickly posted an image of Soriano wearing a Rangers hat and already was selling his jersey.

Hicks, Hart and Fuson admitted the news conference was mostly about Rodriguez leaving, but they stressed how thrilled they are about Soriano arriving.

At 26, Soriano already has joined Willie Mays and Barry Bonds as the only players with at least 35 homers and 35 steals in consecutive seasons. He also can play second base, shortstop or center field. Where he winds up will be decided during spring training.

Soriano also fits the plan because he makes $5.4 million this season and can't be a free agent until after the 2006 season.

"I think the message sent to our young players is that you all are the core," Hart said. "The future has started."

It really gets going Thursday, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Surprise, Ariz. Position players are due the following Tuesday.

Rodriguez returns to Arlington May 21-23 when the Yankees and Rangers play for the first time this season.