A look back at A-Rod’s ties to Miami

Miami Herald Staff

Alex Rodriguez poses in his Miami Westminster Christian uniform prior to being the top pick of the 1993 draft by the Seattle Mariners.
Alex Rodriguez poses in his Miami Westminster Christian uniform prior to being the top pick of the 1993 draft by the Seattle Mariners. Miami Herald file photo

Alex Rodriguez, the biggest baseball star to come out of South Florida, announced Sunday he will play his final game this week.

And before he starts his new job as a special advisor and instructor for the New York Yankees, he will return to the place where it all started — Miami.

From the archives: Before he was A-Rod, by Julie K. Brown, published August 3, 2013

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.’’

From the archives: A year of transformation for Miami’s Alex Rodriguez, by Jane Wooldridge, published Oct. 31, 2015

Alex Rodriguez sits behind the Fox Sports desk, as comfortable in the crisply tailored suit of his temporary role as World Series TV analyst as he is in the pinstripes of the New York Yankees. Though some sports columnists have dismissed his presence as a ratings grab by Fox (which also has Pete Rose on the air), others — even some usually harsh critics — are giving Rodriguez high marks for his insights. One thing is sure: A year ago, he wouldn’t have been sitting there.

“I’m so humbled,” Rodriguez says in his Coral Gables office a few days before the Fox Sports announcement. “So lucky.”

It has become a theme. For Alex Rodriguez, there has never been a year like this one. The combative star who once battled Major League Baseball has become a ghost. After years of repeatedly denying using performance-enhancing drugs and paying others to cover for him, Rodriguez made a deal with the feds, dropped his lawsuits against MLB and quietly served his one-year suspension from the sport that pulled him up, at 17, from his financially challenged Miami life to the majors.

The World Series seems a lifetime away from the February morning some eight months before, when a tall man in a green track suit slipped through the side door of a popular Coconut Grove breakfast eatery — water and berries, thanks — to talk about life after baseball.

He has always known he would need one. After his hand-to-mouth Miami childhood, Rodriguez isn’t about to end up another athlete-gone-broke. Though his lifetime baseball earnings have hit $375 million, more than a decade ago Rodriguez formed A-Rod Corp., a holding company for his Miami real estate construction firm, Newport Property; his Midwest-Southeast real estate investment and management firm, Monument; fitness centers in Mexico and auto dealerships.

A career’s worth of injuries (hips, knees, wrists), age — he’s 40 —and his Kryptonite status of the past year are stark reminders that his baseball career could end before his Yankees contract concludes after the 2017 season. He has served his one-year suspension from his involvement with Coral Gables-based Biogenesis, a now-closed supplier of banned steroids. At Miami charity fundraisers, fellow patrons have ignored him at best, and sometimes turned away. Even the University of Miami’s Mark Light baseball stadium has become a point of controversy, as it also carries Rodriguez’s name thanks to his $3.9 million gift.

But on this February day, the lawsuits have long been dropped. Just the day before, Rodriguez had met with New York Yankees leadership to apologize for actions over the past several years; he had already done the same with new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Though his hip surgeon had given him a clean bill of health, it was still unknown how well he would play after the year off.

But to Rodriguez, his on-field play would not be the top priority. What would matter most this season, he said, is how he behaved off the field. On that, the naysayers and doubters — and there are plenty — agreed with him.

A week later, A-Rod would issue a handwritten apology to baseball, the Yankees and fans. The Biogenesis legal saga would wind to a close.

Cherished Miami memory

The Yankees had an August week at home, allowing enough down time for a pregame lunch at a Madison Avenue restaurant near his New York apartment. Baby kale salad and water, please. The tall man in a white golf shirt and white trousers eased into a back corner table, discernibly more comfortable and confident than his pre-season self.

On and off the field, the season has gone better than many people — including Rodriguez — expected. The hip is holding up. A-Rod has settled in as the Yankees’ designated hitter. In May, he passed Willie Mays’ 660-home-run total, moving into fourth place all-time. A few weeks later, he collected his 3,000th hit.

In June, the opener of a two-game Yankees-Marlins series drew 33,961 to Marlins Park — 12,000 more than the 2015 average attendance at the stadium. A-Rod had a single at-bat, late in the first game. When he stepped up to the plate, the sustained roar — some boos, but more cheers — resounded beyond the bleachers. “One of the most touching times in my career was the ovation in Miami,” he said. “It’s like coming full circle.”

The Mays milestone prompted a new wrinkle. The Yankees declined to pay a $6 million benchmark bonus tied to marketing rights, saying the tarnished A-Rod brand had lost its promotional value. The parties settled with a deal that gave $3.5 million to charity, saved the Yankees $5.5 million out of pocket (part of that in taxes) and gave A-Rod the ball he smacked for a homer at his 3,000th hit, purchased by the team from the fan who grabbed it in the right-field seats.

It was a masterful move that potentially retains Rodriguez’s position for future milestones. It also continued his longtime support for charitable causes, especially Boys & Girls Clubs. The Boys & Girls Club near Coconut Grove was Rodriguez’s childhood home away from home as his single mother worked two jobs to keep the family going; it was there that he learned to play baseball.

“We’re family here,” he tells a group of Club kids gathered for a baseball clinic during the Yankees-Marlins series in June. Over the years Rodriguez has played Santa at the club on multiple occasions and made significant financial contributions, staying engaged with the club in a way that few high-profile alumni have, says Alex Rodriguez-Roig, Miami-Dade club president. Throughout this 2015 season, A-Rod has made club visits nationwide, usually without media. As part of the 3,000th-hit deal, the MLB Urban Youth Foundation would give $1 million to the Miami club, presented during a pregame on-field ceremony in late September.

For the past several years, Rodriguez has funded scholarships to the University of Miami and Florida International University. His own lack of higher education is a longtime soft spot; though not yet teens, both daughters have already picked their preferred colleges. During his suspension, Rodriguez took a marketing class in the UM business school, where he’s on the board. Post-baseball, he’s looking at executive business programs at Harvard and Wharton. If he could turn back the clock, he says, he would have gone to the U before entering the pros. “I think I would have matured a lot in four years.”

Living in the moment

By this mid-August day, Rodriguez’s life had settled into what passes for normal for a high-profile, highly paid elite athlete with a troubled past. His ex-wife, Cynthia, and daughters leased an apartment near his own rental on New York’s Upper East Side so he could spend as much time as possible with Ella, 7, and Natasha, then 10, clearly the apples of their daddy’s eyes. Before home night games, he sometimes would visit museums, galleries and artists’ studios, pursuing the art collecting that he calls “an escape.” Unlike years of old, when Madonna and other female celebrities frequently appeared on his arm, Rodriguez doesn’t tempt the paparazzi; buzz is that he’s single. The sports pundits decry a hitting slump, then applaud a home-run streak.

“This last six months have been very humbling,” he said between nibbles of the kale salad. “From a growth perspective, I’ve got a much better understanding of myself.” He doesn’t talk about it, but it’s been well reported that he’s working with a therapist. “As human beings, we forget things very quickly. One of the things I’ve tried to do in this process, I’ve tried to see things clearly and use it as motivation.”

In his pre-suspension life, he was admittedly “over the top. When you’re in a journey, you create blind spots. It’s part of where you are in your life. ... I’m in a different place now.”

Spurring the change was a desire, simply, to “end the chaos in my life. ... There were days when I woke up and I had the girls, and I was in every TV show. I was putting the papers away [so they wouldn’t see them]. But it’s beyond that.” He came back from a business trip to Mexico and called a longtime friend, now his attorney, Jim Sharp, and asked him what he needed to do to clean up his life.

Sports Illustrated head baseball writer and TV reporter Tom Verducci, who has been outspoken about Rodriguez’s past behavior, told radio host Dan Patrick last summer: “He’s not going to change the past and all the poor decisions he made over years and years of PED use. But he’s changed the story, he’s changed the narrative of who he is. I think in his heart of hearts, he looked at a future where ... no one would want anything to do with him, that he was done playing and was not going to work in or around baseball, and it scared the pants off the guy. You know how much he loves baseball.” Rodriguez, says Verducci, is more comfortable with himself than he has ever seen before.

Rodriguez says his year away from baseball provided plenty of motivation to change — and time to think about what’s really important to him. His daughters, definitely. A photographic portrait of each hangs above his office desk; another of the pair, hand in hand, hangs by the sofa. A strip of photo-booth snaps of the girls rests atop his mail. The expansive home he has just finished building in South Dade was designed around the dual needs of family and art. The best part of his year off, says Rodriguez, was going with his daughters on summer vacation in the Northwest, where they hiked, played golf, went out on a nearby lake.

Says childhood friend and business partner Jose Gomez, “Family has become a huge priority for him.” Heaven help the boys who snag his daughters’ first dates. “I will be answering the door both times,” Rodriguez says.

He has also been thinking about what he really enjoys: “being able to put on a baseball uniform at 40 years old, to bring it back to when I was a boy at the Boys & Girls Club.”

He has become a fan of living in the moment. “You play like it’s your last game, appreciating your teammates and coaches and the fans. I thought if I had one more crack at it, I would play like that.” Every day, he says, he makes time to sign autographs. During his suspension, he notes wryly, not many people wanted one.

The year off gave his battered body the chance to heal, and his psyche the space to dig deep. “The biggest hurdle is in the mirror. … Turning the lens inward and working at it is the only way.”

The hardest part of this past 18 months, he says, was talking with his daughters, explaining that the daddy who takes them to school and tennis and recitals and dance lessons has made some really big mistakes. “It took work to get there,” he says, but the effort was worth it. “They were very loving. I had a 900-pound gorilla come off my back.”

As for how he got himself into the Biogenesis mess, not even his childhood friend-turned-business partner Gomez — the kid who loaned him a pair of cleats, when Rodriguez was 8 and had none — has an answer. As for Rodriguez, he says, “I’m still working on that.”

The man in the mirror

A-Rod finished 2015 with a .250 average and 33 homers for a Yankee team that landed a wild-card slot but lost the one-game playoff to the Houston Astros. Doubters wondered whether a guy his age can possibly play this well without chemicals, no matter what he claims; he’s lied about drug use before. Rodriguez says now, emphatically, that he’s clean.

Still, Rodriguez finishes the season with something that matters to him more, he says, than a championship: a better relationship with the Yankees, with the fans, with baseball, than seemed remotely possible back in February.

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who dissed A-Rod in the preseason and denied him the $6 million bonus, now is an admirer. “He's been great,” he said in an August article in Sports Illustrated. “Whatever he articulates, it makes sense, and he's supportive of his teammates, he's humble, he's throwing bouquets to the opponents, he's respectful. He's performed at an amazing level.”

Writes Joel Sherman in the New York Post, “Rodriguez’s offenses are such that he will never feel a full embrace of the baseball community. But this is more than ever could have been expected 12 months ago. ... He was a clubhouse leader for a tightly knit team. His counsel was sought by Brian Cashman and [Yankeees manager] Joe Girardi. He also was involved in youth initiatives spearheaded by Commissioner Manfred, who before rising to baseball’s top job had prosecuted the case that led to Rodriguez’s yearlong suspension.”

It was quite a year. But for Rodriguez himself, the highlight came in September at the pregame ceremony celebrating his 3,000th hit, his family at his side. “The neatest day of my entire career was being able to share the field and the spotlight with my mother and my two daughters. It’s my 21st year in the major leagues, and I’ve never been on a baseball field at the same time with [them]. It’s extremely special.”

When it comes to his legacy and whether he’ll ever be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Rodriguez is fatalistic. “I don’t have a vote,” he says. “All I can do is focus. If I can take that energy and give to young players and talk about the mistakes I’ve made — paying it forward is a big thing for me.” That includes speaking to students and helping other first-generation immigrants afford college.

It’s also meant owning up to — and sometimes making fun of — past foibles. Thursday night, Rodriguez appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, poking fun at one of his past poor decisions — a photo shoot in which a buff A-Rod kissed himself in the mirror. Fallon responded with a gag photo doing the same himself.

In a chat this fall in his Coral Gables office, Rodriguez says, “I’ve been surprised at how forgiving the fans, baseball and my colleagues — my baseball teammates and players I play against — have been. The irony is I’ve never been treated better in my entire career.

“I think they sense how grateful I am. And there’s the Golden Rule — I’m treating others how I want to be treated. And I’m really, really appreciating the moment. Whether you’re thanking the ball boys or thanking someone that’s parking lot security, you understand you’re part of something really special. You’re one of 750 players. We’re talking about the American Dream … and I’ve been able to do that for two decades. The year off allowed me to get a full understanding of this incredible opportunity that I have.”

What he regrets the most? He thinks for several long minutes. “I don’t think there’s just one thing. I think it’s my overall behavior.”

Holding on to that humility won’t come easy. In his wallet is a laminated list of ways to be a better person; he looks at it daily. He doesn’t share it, but the essence, he says, is something like The Golden Rule.

“Maybe not so quickly, like now, but maybe in five years, I’m going to look back and say the biggest and best thing that ever happened to me was 2014 … because I was able to turn my life around and have a new understanding and appreciation and be happy and in the moment. I was nowhere near that before.”

Related stories from Miami Herald