[Editor's note: Last week, I had asked some of my Twitter followers who their first favorite baseball player was - the one that made them fall in love with baseball - and I got a lot of answers ranging from Barry Bonds to Dave Winfield to Thurman Munson. While this was happening, it was suggested that I invite people to write guest posts about the subject and I thought, "What a great idea!" So here is post number one of what I hope will become a series this year. It was written by Steven Mataya who writes for Aerys' Seattle Mariners site, Needleball. Enjoy! -Stace]
Growing up in the mid-90s in Seattle was fun, especially for a baseball fan. The Seattle Mariners, who began as an expansion team in 1977, were finally hitting their stride. They achieved their first winning season in 1991 but by 1995 they really began to get into a groove. A kid who followed the team had a number of players to look up to, each one providing his own unique personality to become attached to.
There was Jay Buhner, the brash but lovable bald-headed power hitter with the pine tar ever present on his thigh. Some would pick Edgar Martinez, Mariner through and through, who would put up an OBP of .479 in 1995, starting a streak of nine seasons in which his OBP would exceed .400. Randy Johnson and his mean streak were easy for Mariners fans to get behind. The most popular Mariner, however, was Ken Griffey, Jr. The Kid, who had debuted for the Mariners in 1989, had already put together five All-Star seasons by the time 1995 rolled around. Having been born in 1989 and only starting to really care about baseball in 1995, however, I was drawn to a rookie. I decided that I wanted to be like Alex Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, dubbed A-Rod by the late Dave Niehaus, broke into the big leagues just as I began to really care about baseball and the Mariners. He was new to baseball as was I, so it was a natural fit. A slick-fielding and heavy-hitting shortstop, he had it all. Throw in the fact that I was given Alex Rodriguez posters to cover my room and I was hooked. On all of my little league teams, I had to be number 3.
1996 was my first year watching Alex Rodriguez as a full-time player and I wasn’t disappointed. In his first season with over 50 games, all A-Rod did was lead the league in runs, doubles, batting average and total bases. As a kid, I didn’t know just how good he was, but I knew I was watching the beginning of a special career. Looking back and seeing the 9.2 WAR he put up just confirms that sentiment (don’t get me started on the 1996 A.L. MVP voting, in which A-Rod fell second to Juan Gonzalez, who put up a WAR of 3.5).
My fandom was completely changed one day in 1998. Alex Rodriguez was signing autographs at a local hardware store and I had to be there. The Mariners were playing a night game in a few hours at the Kingdome, so we decided to make it a day full of baseball. I stood in line for what seemed like hours with my dad, mom and sister, waiting to have the chance to finally meet my favorite ballplayer and get an autograph. When I finally got to the front of the line, I gave the security guard (who was standing about twenty feet away from Alex) my copy of his children’s book, Hit A Grand Slam. The security guard gave it to Alex. Alex signed the book and gave it to another security guard. The security guard gave the book back to me.
I was overwhelmed with emotion. My favorite player was just holding my book and he spent precious seconds of his life on me. I was in awe. And what does a kid in awe do? He wants more.
We got back in line to do it all over again. The line had dwindled – people had their autographs so the crowd had nearly vanished. In a matter of minutes, we were at the front of the line again. I presented the security guard (who was still standing far from Alex) with my poster to be signed. The security guard looked at me and, in a harsh tone, told me no. Alex was only signing books that were bought that day. No exceptions.
I was shattered. An eight-year-old kid who was having the day of his life was now told that it was over, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. I didn’t know what to do, so I stopped in my tracks and started to cry.
As I turned around to start walking away, I heard a voice. “Hey!” I looked around to see who was talking to me, and lo and behold, my idol was looking right at me. Alex Rodriguez focused all his attention on me, the crying boy who just wanted an autograph, and motioned for me to come over. I quickly wiped the tears from my face (there’s no crying in baseball) and stepped up to his table, handing him my poster while shaking. He signed the poster and gave it back to me, making my day.
I was reunited with my parents who saw the whole exchange. By this time, everybody who wanted an autograph had already gotten it and the crowd had made its way to the front door to sent A-Rod off. My dad, however, decided that we should head to the back of the store, assuming Alex would prefer to leave without being mobbed on his way out.
We stood by the back of the store, near the doors that go toward the warehouse. Lo and behold, Alex Rodriguez popped out from behind one of the aisles and headed right for me. He was going to have to acknowledge me in one way or another. Could this day get any better?
I was in awe, yet again. I feebly stuck out my hand to shake his and managed a quick “good luck at the game tonight, Alex.” He must have recognized me from a few minutes earlier. How did he cap off my already great day?
“Yeah, thanks kid.”
No handshake. No high five. Nothing. As quickly as he brought my spirits up with his classy move earlier in the afternoon, he brought me right back down to reality, doing as little as possible to acknowledge me as a fan. Did he know at the time that he was losing perhaps one of his biggest fans? Probably not. Did the eight-year-old version of me think it through logically and come to the conclusion that he may have been in a hurry? Doubtful. His response, however, completely changed my fandom.
When A-Rod left Seattle for greener ($252 million) pastures in Texas prior to the 2001 season, it left a lasting impression on Mariners fans, and not a positive one. He had made it apparent through his last few years that he wanted to remain a Mariner and stay with a winning team, but the money proved too great for Alex to stay.
His first game back to Safeco Field on April 16, 2001 is one I will never forget. I turned down a weekend of camping with my cousins to be in attendance for the return of the player who would become known around Seattle as A-Fraud, A-Wad and K-Rod, among others. When he appeared in the on-deck circle, a Mariners fan pulled out a fishing line with a dollar hooked to the end and taunted Alex with it. Fans in the upper decks released boxes and boxes of fake money with Alex’s picture on the front and a poem detailing his break-up with Seattle on the reverse. The boos that showered upon Alex that day far surpass any I have ever heard in my life and probably ever will hear.
Alex grounded out in his first at-bat. I cheered along with the 45,656 fans that packed Safeco Field that night. He did hit a single in his second at-bat, but his final three at-bats consisted of a strikeout, another ground out and a pop fly. You can bet that I was out of my seat and cheering every time he left the basepaths for the dugout.
To this day, Alex Rodriguez will get booed loudly every time he steps to the plate in Seattle. Can he really be blamed, though, for taking $252 million dollars to play a game in another city? Can he be blamed for walking out of a hardware store to the Kingdome without shaking a young fan’s hand after a few solid hours of signing autographs? Probably not, but fandom isn’t built on logic and reasoning. While Alex Rodriguez was my first favorite player ever, and while I don’t harbor much resentment for him at this point, I would be lying if I said it isn’t just the tiniest bit satisfying seeing him strike out.