Alex Rodriguez makes his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot this winter, and given all of the PED-related controversy that surrounded his career, it remains to be seen if he will ever end up with a plaque in Cooperstown. His fate will ultimately be determined by how the writers (and, quite possibly, future veterans committees) view these off-the-field actions, whereas for the average HOF candidate, discussions usually just center around the numbers.
In terms of pure statistics, Rodriguez more than qualifies for induction. And yet beyond the 696 home runs, 14 All-Star appearances, and three MVP awards, one number has defined Rodriguez’s career — $252,000,000.
It was on this day in 2000 that Rodriguez dropped a bombshell on the sports world by signing a ten-year, $252MM free agent contract with the Rangers. It was far and away the largest contract ever signed in pro sports, let alone in MLB. (Just a few days before Rodriguez’s deal, Mike Hampton inked an eight-year, $121MM deal with the Rockies that briefly stood as the biggest contract in baseball history.) Even 21 years later, A-Rod’s Rangers contract is still the twelfth-richest contract ever signed in baseball.
To be clear, there was no doubt that Rodriguez was going to land some sort of record-setting deal that winter. The first overall pick of the 1993 draft had done nothing but live to that lofty status over his first seven seasons, hitting .309/.374/.561 with 189 home runs over 3515 plate appearances with the Mariners. Besides being a five-tool player, Rodriguez also had youth on his side, as he hit the open market when he was only 25 years old. A team could reasonably count on A-Rod to continue posting superstar-level numbers over at least the next decade, which only helped agent Scott Boras’ case that his client deserved a unique type of contract.
But for an eye-popping $252MM number, a unique type of bidder was needed. Enter the Rangers. Tom Hicks purchased the team in June 1998, and while Texas won AL West titles in both 1998 and 1999, they were swept out of the ALDS in both years. After the Rangers stumbled to a 71-91 record in 2000, Hicks felt a major shakeup was required, and that included an unprecedented splurge on the top free agent available.
As you might expect, the reactions to Rodriguez’s signing ranged somewhere between wonder and outrage. Many felt it was a sign of irresponsible spending, as then-Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker described the contract as “The sooner we run this up the flagpole, the sooner we get to D-Day and a catastrophic event” for competitive balance in baseball.
This viewpoint also extended to the Commissioner’s Office. MLB’s executive VP of baseball operations Sandy Alderson said he was “sort of stupefied” by Rodriguez’s deal, as “we have effectively doubled the previous most lucrative contract in two days. I don’t like the exponentiality of all of that. We have a straight-up trend that doesn’t augur well. To me, it’s incredible.
“For every Texas, there are five teams like Oakland who traded their second baseman, let go of their starting right fielder and saw their No. 2 pitcher sign a $40 million contract as a free agent with another team. I suggest you ask the players on teams such as that whether this game is as healthy as this signing suggests.”
There is no small amount of irony in these comments some 21 years later, on several levels. Firstly, Athletics fans are undoubtedly sighing deeply over the fact that both now and then, their team’s “cycle” of roster reloads has continued to spin. Secondly, competitive balance continues to be a cornerstone issue between players and owners amidst the current lockout, though one of the primary concerns on the MLBPA’s side is that larger-market teams aren’t spending enough, and that the league’s mechanisms to ostensibly protect competitive balance (draft bonus pools, luxury tax penalties, draft pick compensation for free agents, etc.) are driving salaries down.
And, Alderson himself is now president of the Mets, working for an aggressive owner in Steve Cohen who has — like Hicks in 2000 — shown himself to be unfazed by signing precedents. Since Alderson returned to the Mets in September 2020, New York has already signed Francisco Lindor to a ten-year, $341MM contract extension, and set a new record for average annual value by signing Max Scherzer to a three-year, $130MM pact. (In another ironic twist, an ownership group led by Rodriguez and ex-fiancee Jennifer Lopez were among the strongest bidders for the Mets last year before Cohen ultimately bought the club.)
In hindsight, the critics were technically right, in that signing Rodriguez didn’t help the Rangers to any success on the field. Texas didn’t enjoy a single winning record in Rodriguez’s three years with the club, and Hicks came to see A-Rod’s deal as a payroll albatross. Of course, the issue was more due to the lack of talent Texas built around Rodriguez, rather than what Rodriguez was doing himself. A-Rod held up his end of the contract with the Rangers, hitting .305/.395/.615 with 156 homers over his three seasons in Arlington and capturing AL MVP honors in 2003.
By February 2004, Rodriguez’s tenure with the Rangers was already over, as he was dealt to the Yankees in a blockbuster swap in exchange for Alfonso Soriano, Joaquin Arias, and (possibly most importantly) $112MM of the $179MM that remained on A-Rod’s deal. This trade came about only after an earlier proposed trade with the Red Sox was vetoed by the MLBPA since Rodriguez would have been giving up $28MM in salary, and thus A-Rod found himself in the Bronx.
As it happens, Rodriguez is actually still receiving money from the Rangers to this day, via deferred payments from his original contract and re-brokered in the wake of the Rangers filing for bankruptcy in 2010. What was once seen as a transformative signing in the franchise’s history ultimately became something of an expensive footnote, and even a cautionary tale. It’s one thing to sign a can’t-miss superstar (even at a $252MM price tag), but quite another to keep making canny roster moves to make sure that superstar’s prime years aren’t being wasted.
It is a lesson that the current Rangers front office surely has in the back of their minds as they embark on another spending spree. In the wake of five consecutive losing seasons and a pared-down payroll, Texas has zoomed back to prominence this winter by landing Jon Gray (four years, $56MM), Marcus Semien (seven years, $175MM) and, biggest of all, Corey Seager for 10 years and $325MM. That’s another star shortstop on another 10-year deal, except with $73MM more in guaranteed money. Texas fans can only hope that the “Transaction Retrospection” MLBTR is writing about the Seager contract in 21 years’ time carries many more references to World Series championships, rather than the sour feelings left behind by the A-Rod deal.