Before he was A-Rod

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.’’

“I was proud of his accomplishments and still am,’’ said Rich Hofman, his coach at Westminster Christian Academy, who helped steer him from high school straight to the big leagues.

“But these are disappointing times. It’s sort of like your own child. You may not like what he did, but that doesn’t mean you throw him away.’’

Back to the beginning

The way James Colzie Jr., an assistant coach for the Little League Miami Yankees, remembers it, the first time he met Alex that summer day in the mid-1980s, the green-eyed kid was a year younger and a half-foot or so smaller than the other players. He and Arteaga looked at each other, then fixed their gaze on Alex, worried that the bigger kids might accidentally clock him with an errant ball.

“You know if he got hit, we would have been liable,’’ said Colzie, now retired after coaching basketball at South Miami High for nearly 20 years. “He threw his first ball quick and, without missing a beat, he grabbed his first catch, you know, with a little hop or skip to it. We looked at each other and said ‘Wow, what do we got here?’

“At that point, we knew we didn’t have to worry about the kids hitting him, we had to worry about him hitting the other kids.’’

From that day forward, Alex rarely left Arteaga’s side. He and Arteaga’s son, J.D. Jr., became best friends and the three lived baseball from morning until late at night, with Alex spending many evenings sleeping over. Arteaga was a tough coach, and it wasn’t unusual for him to get spitting mad and start shouting at them in Spanish, Colzie said.

Arteaga treated Rodriguez like his own son, picking up and dropping him off for practices, making sure he had uniforms, cleats and equipment, signing him up for the academies, travel teams and tournaments and taking him to his own home after practices and serving him supper. He would also get him up for school on the mornings when Alex’s mother, Lourdes Navarro, waitressed at Pollo Supremo, a 24-hour chicken joint, until the wee hours the night before.

Rodriguez was born in New York to Dominican parents, but was raised in Miami from the age of 8, living with his mother, brother Joe, and sister Susy in a small apartment in Kendall near 137th Avenue and 62nd Street, across from what is now the Miccosukee Golf & Country Club.

His mother was content to let Arteaga guide her son, whose father had left the family and returned to New York shortly after they arrived in Miami.

“J.D. didn’t really have a preference for one boy over the other, he treated them both as equals and rode them pretty hard. That’s why they were so disciplined,’’ said Juan Pascual, a former youth league coach who worked with Alex and J.D.

Pascual, now director of parks and recreation for the city of Miami, said Arteaga had an immense influence on Rodriguez’s career.

“I’m telling you that without J.D. Arteaga, there would have been no Alex Rodriguez,’’ he said.

But it took a village at times to raise young Alex, and Colzie recalls that he and other parents would also pitch in, taking him to their homes while his mother worked, making sure he did his homework and that he stayed focused on baseball — as well as football and basketball, sports in which he also excelled. Everyone chipped in, but Arteaga was the one who assumed most of the cost, according to Colzie.

Arteaga spent hours strategizing which private schools the boys should attend so that they could play on the best teams. He attended all the boys’ games and practices and traveled with them across the country and to Mexico and Central America to play.

Said Colzie’s son, James Colzie III, a friend and teammate of the boys: “He saw something in Alex and he made sure that he was positioned to get the most exposure.’’

It was Arteaga who found a way to get Alex into Westminster, a private school with a nationally recognized sports program. Tuition at the time was $5,000 a year, but Arteaga helped Alex’s mother apply for grants and they made it work. At the end of Alex’s freshman year at Christopher Columbus High School, he transferred to Westminster, where he played shortstop on the baseball team and quarterback on the football team next to J.D. Jr.

But Arteaga did not live to see Alex and his son make it through high school. He died of a heart attack while watching the boys — then sophomores — play a football game. He was 48.

To this day, Rodriguez rarely mentions Arteaga Sr.’s role in his life, which is a mystery to Colzie, Pascual and others. J.D. Jr., who went on to pitch for the University of Miami and play five seasons in the minor leagues, is now an assistant pitching coach for UM. The two went their separate ways many years ago and J.D. declined to talk about his early friendship or his father’s relationship with Rodriguez.

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for interviews for this story, which were submitted to his New York public relations representative, Ron Berkowitz..

Colzie also hasn’t heard from Rodriguez much since he was drafted right out of high school in 1993. His son, Colzie III, now defensive coordinator for the football team at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, said Rodriguez was kind enough to get him tickets next to the Yankees dugout about four years ago when they played the Atlanta Braves. He recalled how remarkably muscular his childhood friend had become.

“I was like ‘wow, that is not the same kid who played shortstop at Westminster.’ It was somewhat shocking at how good he looked. I remember he was warming up and he looked better than anybody on the field,’’ Colzie III said.

Alex bulks up

Just when Rodriguez began taking performance enhancing drugs is a source of debate. Some have speculated it may have began as early as high school when he had a sudden growth spurt between his sophomore and junior year. Rodriguez has admitted he took steroids from 2001 to 2003 when he played for the Texas Rangers but has insisted he hadn’t used PED’s before or since.

Rodriguez’s freefall began when his name was found listed among the clients of Biogenesis, the now shuttered Coral Gables anti-aging clinic that allegedly doled out steroids and other banned substances to as many as 20 ballplayers. Although most are expected to get 50-game bans, Rodriguez is in line for harsher punishment — possibly even a lifetime ban — in part because MLB believes that he tried to sabotage their investigation by purchasing some of the clinic’s records and destroying them to cover up his doping. So far, A-Rod has vowed to fight to the bitter end, insisting that he is innocent.

Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, was given a season-ending suspension after admitting his ties to Anthony Bosch, the founder of the clinic who is helping MLB identify cheating players.

Rodriguez, who is sidelined by injuries, has denied he even knows Bosch, who claims he once personally injected Rodriguez.

Hofman theorizes that Rodriguez turned to performance enhancing drugs because of the pressure he faced when he reached the big time.

“All the athletes want to get an edge,’’ said Hofman, who still coaches. “In the past, some of this stuff wasn’t illegal. But still, he will pay the price and it will probably cost him the Hall of Fame.’’

Eddy Rodriguez, who ran the baseball program at the Hank Kline Boys and Girls Club in Miami where Rodriguez played as a kid, refuses to discuss the steroid scandal. Rodriguez, (no relation to Alex) who has worked with other South Florida prodigies such as Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco, remained close to Rodriguez well into his major league career.

“When he came here he was just a skinny little kid,’’ recalls Rodriguez, who has been with the club for 40 years.

“I like to know people the way they are. The Alex I know is the Boys Club, the person who cares about kids, who helps kids. People like to talk, but they don’t know him,’’ Rodriguez said.

He was one of the most hard-working and devoted players Eddy Rodriguez has ever known, often practicing so late that they’d have to kick him off the field so they could turn off the lights. Even after hitting the major leagues, Rodriguez took very little down time between seasons before returning to South Florida and working out.

Eddy Rodriguez said those who speak ill of Rodriguez are probably people who wanted handouts.

“He’s not a bank. People think he’s a bank,’’ he said.

But there’s no question that Rodriguez’s quest for bigger contracts and more luxurious perks — many of them not afforded to his lesser-paid teammates — led him down the road of no return. His circle of people he felt he could trust became smaller and smaller.

Hofman said up until a few years he remained in touch with Rodriguez and saw first-hand how difficult his young protégé’s life had become.

“When he got to New York, they portrayed him as a villain. I’ve seen the life he has to live and it’s not easy,’’ said the coach.

Though he craved love and attention, his ego seemed to stand in the way. In 2001, he was crucified in the tabloids for dissing the beloved hometown Yankee hero Derek Jeter, his teammate, in an Esquire story. And in 2009 a magazine photo showing him posing in front of a mirror kissing his reflection did little to help his image.

Hofman recognizes that Alex has not always made the best decisions.

“With Alex, people either love him or they hate him, there is no middle ground.’’

Eddy Rodriguez insists the superstar has never forgotten where he came from. He visits the club almost every year with loads of Christmas toys for the kids, signs baseballs and eats pizza like a regular Joe.

Alex Rodriguez-Roig, executive director of Miami Boys and Girls Clubs — also no relation to Alex — said it’s impossible to measure the contributions that Rodriguez has made to the South Florida community. He has donated more than $1 million to the club, and continues to donate equipment and fund renovations.

The baseball diamond at the club has been transformed from the weedy sandlot that young Alex once played upon into a carefully manicured gem. His name is emblazoned across the club’s $2 million educational center, as well as on the stadium at the University of Miami, thanks to his sizeable financial gifts to the university, which he never attended.

The Miami Herald contacted the university several times for comment, but it did not return calls.

Rodriguez has often said his mother was probably the most important influence on his life.

In a 1997 interview with The Seattle Times, Rodriguez, then 21 and just entering the pantheon of sports greats, talked about integrity, his bright future and, someday, being a role model to younger players.

“My mom says fame and money mean nothing if you don’t stay the same person you were.’’

Note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version that incorrectly identified those responsible for improvements to the baseball field at the Hank Kline Boys and Girls Club. They were made possible through a community partnership between Ransom Everglades School, its parents and the boys and girls club.