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Golden Guy

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No slot machine blared when Alex Rodriguez hit the jackpot in a Las Vegas casino last December. All he heard as he gambled with some old high school pals was the gentle bleeping of his cell phone. “You better step away from the table to a place where you can talk,” said the caller, Rodriguez’s high-powered agent Scott Boras. “I just finalized the deal with the Texas Rangers for $252 million for ten years.”

“Wow! This is great!” stammered Rodriguez. “I can’t believe it!”

Neither, as the baseball season opens, can most clear-thinking fans. After all, the quarter-billion-dollar deal is by far the richest contract ever awarded an athlete in this country. Sure, the handsome, multi-talented 25-year-old shortstop known as A-Rod—the hip nickname Boras trademarked for him six years ago—is “the best player in baseball, no question,” says New York Times sportswriter Buster Olney. But $252 million? Twice as much as the previous record contract (signed by the NBA’s Kevin Garnett)? More than Rangers owner Tom Hicks paid for his entire team plus the ballpark? “Our judgment is that Alex will break every record in baseball before he finishes his career,” says Hicks, whose team finished last in its division in 2000. “And he’s a great asset to the community and fans.” As for A-Rod, he’s hardly A-Gog over the contract. “I don’t get caught up in the hype,” he says. “I’d play even if I had to pay someone to let me play.”

Not that Boras brought that up during negotiations. Armed with statistics such as Rodriguez’s 184 homers and .314 batting average over his five full seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Boras extracted what he says is fair value for a once-in-a-lifetime performer. “He’s an attractive young man who is equipped to be a leader,” says Boras, 48. “He has the drive to be the best shortstop in history.” But what about the burden of all those zeroes? Rodriguez shrugs it off. “There is pressure,” he concedes, “but I think it’s good pressure. I feel like a rookie, like I have to prove myself again. And I won’t let the fans or the team down.”

That determination derives from the lessons of a difficult childhood. Alex was 4 when his father, Victor, moved his family from New York City to the Dominican Republic, where Victor was a pro baseball catcher. They returned to the U.S. three years later and settled in Miami, but not long afterward Victor moved out for good. Lourdes, his wife, worked days as a secretary and nights as a waitress to help support young Alex, his older brother Joe and older sister Susy. “When Mom got home, I’d always count her tip money to see how good she did,” says Rodriguez. “She taught me the meaning of hard work and commitment.” A-Rod refuses to discuss his father, but Rich Hofman, 56, his high school baseball coach, says that “lately they’ve had some communication. I think [his father’s leaving] probably hurt Alex a lot in some of. his relationship issues.”

On the baseball diamond Alex “worked harder than anybody,” says his mentor and surrogate father Eddie Rodriguez (no relation), 47, a coach with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami. After three stellar seasons at Westminster Christian High School, Rodriguez was snatched by the Seattle Mariners with the first pick in the 1993 draft. His salary? $1.3 million over three years. “I spent $30,000 on a Cherokee [Jeep],” he says of his first post-deal splurge. “After my second contract [$10.6 million for four years in 1996] I bought my house in Miami.”

Rodriguez still lives in that relatively modest four-bedroom house in southwest Miami, not far from the area where he grew up. By all accounts polite and down-to-earth, if a little guarded, Rodriguez is “very close to my family,” he says, as well as crazy for his German shepherd Gypsy and yellow Labrador Shorty (“They’re my life”). He hangs out mostly with old friends and, though he’s cagey about his love life, has been dating Cynthia Scurtis, a teacher. “Someday I’d like to be married,” is all he will say, “and to bring a baby into the world.”

Other long-range plans include earning a college diploma and owning an Italian restaurant—”one that has only five or six tables, where the same guys come in all the time,” he explains. “And the only music that I would play would be Frank Sinatra.” Okay, but what’s the fellow who makes $170,270 a game going to do with all that moolah today? “I’ll probably buy a pair of cowboy boots,” he says. “Everyone in Texas needs at least one pair, don’t they?” Go crazy, A-Rod: Buy two pair.

Alex Tresniowski

Chris Coats in Dallas and Kristin Harmel in Miami