If Juan Diego Arteaga had set up baseball practice anywhere else on the sprawling South Miami grade school playground that day 30 years ago, he may never have seen the scrawny kid climbing on the rusty jungle gym just beyond center field.
It was just another muggy summer afternoon as Arteaga’s team of 9- and 10-year-olds warmed up on their makeshift practice field, hurling soft-throws across a scrubby lot at Everglades Elementary in the middle-class neighborhood of Westchester.
Arteaga, a native of Cuba who had a lifelong love of baseball and the New York Yankees, was determined that his son, J.D., would play for the Yankees someday, so it was natural he would name his Little League team the Yankees.
As the kids lined up in pairs to play catch, he noticed they were one player shy of even. The catcher hadn’t shown up. Arteaga glanced up and noticed the young squirt on the monkey bars.
“Hey kid, come on down here,’’ Arteaga shouted in Spanish.
He jumped and sprinted toward the burly, bearded Cuban.
“Do you want to play some ball?’’
“Yeah, I wanna play ball,’’ the kid said. Arteaga handed him a glove and a baseball.
It was not the first time Alex Rodriguez had picked up a ball and glove.
But it was the day that an 8-year-old future baseball legend was discovered.
This was little Alex Rodriguez — long before he was “A-Rod” — before he was the No. 1 draft pick, before he was one of the most promising rookies ever to play Major League Baseball, before he was Madonna’s new fling, before he was a Mariner, a Ranger or a Yankee.
Before he won three MVPs and the World Series, broke records and was on the fast track to baseball’s Hall of Fame. And before, finally, he became the personification of baseball’s steroid fixation.
His formative years began on the dusty diamonds of South Miami-Dade, guided by a small group of mentors, fathers and coaches who recognized the raw talent behind the wiry, insecure boy whose father had abandoned him and whose hardworking single mother had neither the means nor the time to support his dreams of baseball glory. Rodriguez, who just turned 38, still holds a sentimental place in the hearts of those who knew him long before he became the highest-paid, most vilified and now arguably one of the most disgraced players in baseball history.
As a potential career-ending suspension looms over his alleged use of banned substances, supporters who once adamantly stood behind their hometown hero have quietly resigned themselves to a sad truth: that Rodriguez’s legacy will always be linked to the shame of baseball’s steroid era.
Now the Yankees are hoping to dump him and his $275 million contract. New York’s tabloids are calling him a criminal. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is expected to announce, possibly as early as Monday, when and if Rodriguez can ever return to the game.
One thing almost everyone seems to agree on is that this gifted athlete, once destined for Baseball’s Hall of Fame and the history books, didn’t need to cheat. He was among the best athletes ever to grace a baseball field.
Many of the most influential people in his early life remain in Miami, but his ties to them aren’t as strong as they once were. Few people who knew him back when he was coming up are willing to talk about him publicly. Those who do carefully avoid the words “steroids’’ and “banned substances” and “drugs.’’