Twenty-one years ago this spring, Baltimore Orioles manager Johnny Oates brought a 17-year-old kid onto the field in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and motioned for Cal Ripken Jr. to come over.
"Cal, this is Alex Rodriguez," Oates said.
Rodriguez and Ripken shook hands and began to chat. For A-Rod, this was a huge deal. In Ripken, he saw the player -- and perhaps the man -- he wanted to be.
Few big men had played the position of shortstop before the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Ripken came along, and so young Rodriguez, all 6-foot-3 of him, had his role model.
But it was more than that. Ripken did everything right. He was meticulous in his preparation, productive at the plate and acrobatic in the field.
He also engaged the fans in a way star athletes sometimes won't. He understood and embraced that he was a role model, that kids were paying attention to every single thing he did.
Baseball never had a better ambassador than Ripken during his 21 seasons. Brooks Robinson had been his role model.
Over the years, Rodriguez peppered Ripken with questions, and he got answers that were grounded in what was known in Baltimore as The Oriole Way.
It's actually pretty simple stuff. Some of it deals with the technical part of cutoffs, rundowns, etc., but mostly it's about respecting the game and the opponent and being a good teammate and a consummate professional.
Three months after Rodriguez and Ripken met, the Mariners made A-Rod the No. 1 pick in the 1993 First-Year Player Draft. Thirteen months after that, he was in the big leagues, an 18-year-old with a dazzling skill set.
Plenty of scouts said he was the most complete young player they'd ever seen. If there was such a thing as a can't-miss prospect, he was it.
So what happened? Somewhere along the way, A-Rod lost sight of what Cal Ripken stood for and how he did things.
Maybe he never trusted his God-given talent even as others were dazzled by them. Maybe he ultimately was overcome by his insecurities.
Or perhaps he couldn't resist the temptation of performance-enhancing drugs. We may never know whether he was driven there by ego or injury or maybe even fear.
Regardless, this is, most of all, a sad story, one of a reputation shredded. As for all those career accomplishments -- 654 home runs, three Most Valuable Player Awards and 14 All-Star selections -- they mean almost nothing.
Everything Rodriguez did, even if he did it honestly, even if he didn't need chemical enhancement, will be looked at skeptically.
He'll be 39 years old on Opening Day 2015, when his 162-game suspension will allow him back on the field. Given his declining production in recent years, there's no way of knowing if he'll be capable of playing big league baseball.
Still, his choices would be to go away quietly, to accept that his career has ended in disgrace. Or he can try one more time to play, to come back as he's approaching his 40th birthday and try to write a different ending.
Because of his age, there's probably nothing he can do to change the way people think about him. They surely will always wonder what he did, and perhaps more important, why he did it. He had the kind of talent almost every player would die to have.
Some people will tell you that Rodriguez never fit into the culture of a clubhouse in which players see more of their teammates than their families for about nine months a year. This is an accurate assessment on a lot of levels.
But he tried.
The Yankees pleaded with him to stop giving so many interviews and to confine his remarks to baseball topics, to follow the lead of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, who may never have uttered a memorable quote the last 20 seasons.
Rodriguez tried. There's no question about that. Two springs ago, when he was asked about Ryan Braun's positive drug test, he declined to answer.
"I'm going to stay within my circle of competence," he said, "and that's a very small circle."
Maybe this part of the story doesn't matter. In the end, his sins kept catching up with him. Rodriguez simply decided that the rules that applied to others didn't apply to him. Or he thought he was smart enough to beat the system.
His is now a cautionary tale. To have all that talent and to still look for shortcuts is as amazing as it is sad. We may never know why he did it, why he couldn't resist. All that's clear now is that his options are limited.
Rodriguez can come back and try to play a few more games and show he can do things right. But he can never get back all that he has lost. His good name is gone forever. Here's hoping others are paying attention.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.