Alex Rodriguez’s first professional at-bat in more than a year and a half went better than expected Wednesday.
Not only did he single to left field, there was even a smattering of cheers to help drown out boos from the Yankees’ faithful in Tampa. “Once you hit rock bottom, any time you hear a few cheers these days is a pleasant surprise,” said Rodriguez, baseball’s most infamous and steroid-scarred star.
If only Rodriguez, 39, could play all of his remaining games at the ballpark bearing his name at the University of Miami. There, at least, he knows he wouldn’t be booed much at all.
UM — the school for which he would have played if not for being drafted with the first overall pick in 1993, and the athletic program he gave $3.9 million to help renovate its baseball stadium — has never once considered divorcing itself from the troubled 14-time All-Star and three-time league MVP.
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Not the first time he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in February 2009. Nor the second time, when he was suspended for the 2014 season because of his connection to Biogenesis, the now-defunct anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables once located right across the street from the ballpark UM renamed in A-Rod’s honor in 2009.
In Coral Gables, A-Rod is considered family.
“The issue of removing Rodriguez’s name from the stadium has never come up,” a prominent UM trustee told the Miami Herald last week. “And there appears to be no interest in doing so among the board.”
Be it his name on UM’s baseball stadium or his presence around the Hecht Athletic Center, nothing has stood between A-Rod and UM during his troubled times.
The Miami native has made UM his home away from Major League Baseball — either as a fan (with sideline passes at football games, seats at basketball and baseball games), a student (last summer he took a marketing class in the school of business) or an athlete (he regularly showed up for workouts two to three times a week at Hecht like he has for years).
Although he didn’t spend as much time around the baseball team as previous years (infielder David Thompson said he saw Rodriguez taking grounders on UM’s infield just once this offseason), Rodriguez did film his version of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from inside the Hurricanes’ dugout in August.
Baseball coach Jim Morris said pros who work out at UM know his rules for field access: they use it in the morning so the college players have the diamond after class in the afternoon.
As for A-Rod, Morris said: “He comes when he wants. But I don’t think he’s been out [here] but twice [this offseason]. He used to come out every day before this all went down.”
Morris, of course, was referring to the second time Rodriguez got in trouble. That’s when the steroid story hit much closer to home for the Hurricanes. Several former UM players, including Ryan Braun, were linked to Biogenesis according to records obtained by The Miami New Times. But Braun was the only former Cane among the 14 suspended by baseball in the scandal.
“We kind of tried to stay away from the whole thing,” Morris said of the Biogenesis mess, something no one at UM was discussing this time last year because the school was still doing its own investigation into former baseball strength coach Jimmy Goins, who in the end was not found to have provided steroids to UM athletes even though he was linked to Biogenesis as a client.
“[When Biogenesis happened] we immediately tested our players to make sure nobody was involved in it,” Morris continued. “We did it a couple times. I didn’t want to be around it. So, our players knew they shouldn’t be around it too.”
So why does UM continue to allow Rodriguez, a two-time PED offender, on campus whenever he wants? Why is Rodriguez still serving as a board of trustee member at UM? That’s a question school athletic director Blake James said he couldn’t answer because he’s “not involved in those types of conversations.”
But it seems clear that A-Rod’s generosity with his wallet plays a role.
“Alex has always been very professional,” James said of why the athletic department has continued to allow Rodriguez to use UM’s facilities. “He’s always respected any protocol we’ve had in place for using our facilities.”
Andreu Swasey, UM’s head strength coach since 2001, said he and his wife Monica have trained A-Rod at UM for the past 12 years. Although Swasey said he has overseen A-Rod’s lifting regimen, Monica has worked with A-Rod on speed drills. Swasey said he has never seen any signs Rodriguez was on PEDs. Swasey said his training program has always been clean.
“If you don’t have a Muscle Milk or banana in your hand, for me, I don’t know what you’ve got,” said Swasey, who trains dozens of professional athletes (many from the NFL) at UM.
“I think the thing Alex likes about UM is the persona. When you have young, vibrant kids around you, you have a lot of hungry, competitive people trying to strive for excellence. Here it’s healthy for him because it’s not a judgment area. It’s all about ‘Are you working or are you not?’ It’s not about what’s going on in the media. And I think that makes him feel at home, a place he can come back to, work and do what he does.”
Around UM and the athletes who train there, Swasey said, Rodriguez is considered family. That’s probably why Rodriguez showed up to spring training in Tampa last week dressed from head to toe in UM apparel and not Yankees pinstripes.
A handful of UM fans who attended the most recent weekend home series against Wright State said there is no reason Rodriguez should have his name scratched from the stadium for which he provided millions of dollars.
“I don’t really think about what he might have done as far as steroids and lying,” said Jay Bakas, 59, of Miami. “How many players the last couple of decades have taken steroids and not gotten caught?”
Marcia Mur, 63, took stats for UM’s baseball program from 1970 to 1976 and is now a season-ticket holder.
“If we took the name of every person who made a mistake off of buildings, there would be no JFK buildings, no Herbert Hoover buildings, no FDR buildings,” she said. “The thing is, people make mistakes. But how many honorable people are there who are willing to donate buildings or facilities at major universities?”
James said the amount of complaints he receives regarding A-Rod’s name being on the baseball stadium are “very small in the big picture.”
Thompson, a lifelong Yankees fan drafted by New York out of high school, said he had a brief talk with A-Rod shortly before the start of UM’s season, and the two wished each other good luck. Although Thompson said he’s happy baseball has cracked down on steroids and cheaters, he said that will not stop him from rooting for A-Rod.
“I hope people forget about the past,” Thompson said. “You can go back to anyone’s past and find something you don’t like about them. I definitely felt like Alex was sincere with his apology letter to the fans, and I wish him the best.
“I hope people can forgive him and let him go hit more home runs like he’s always done.”
Miami Herald sportswriters Susan Miller Degnan and Barry Jackson contributed to this report.