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Young A-Rod should have followed Ripken's example

It was the spring of 1993 in Fort Lauderdale when Orioles manager Johnny Oates introduced Cal Ripken Jr. to a skinny, 17-year-old kid from Miami. Alex Rodriguez would be the overall No. 1 pick in the draft that summer and had asked to meet with his boyhood idol.

Ripken redefined the position of shortstop, proving that big guys could play there. Not only could they handle the position defensively, but they could also hit home runs, which only a few shortstops had done through the years.

Rodriguez apparently had begun watching Ripken years earlier when the Orioles trained in Miami. Anyway, they had a brief, cordial meeting that day and stayed in touch through the years. A-Rod made his Major League debut when he was 18, 16 months after meeting Ripken.

Lots has happened since. Ripken played nine more seasons and was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame in 2007. He was named on 98.5 percent of ballots, third-highest behind only Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.

(Wouldn't you like to meet the fools who didn't vote for Seaver, Ryan and Ripken? But I digress.)

A-Rod was on the right track in his high regard for Ripken. He was just about the perfect baseball player in terms of production and preparation and work ethic.

But he was more than that. He tried to sign every autograph, do every interview and took pride in representing the Orioles the right way.

True story: Once on a train ride in Japan, he fretted about an interview he'd just read with country star Bill Anderson. In the interview, Anderson said he'd never turned down an autograph request.

This comment bothered Ripken.

"How is that possible?" he asked. "There are times you just can't sign."

In his final seasons, Ripken would stay on the field after games an hour or more trying to accommodate every autograph request. He couldn't sign 'em all, but he tried.

My point is that A-Rod would have been well served to have consulted Cal a few times over the years before he said or did things. Like Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, Cal believed his play should speak for him and that the focus of his career should be about his team and his play.

A-Rod did so many things that called attention to himself. He took some veiled shots at Jeter. In short, he never really seemed comfortable in his own skin.

Maybe that's why he chose to use performance-enhancing drugs. Even though plenty of scouts say he was the best young player they ever saw, maybe A-Rod thought otherwise.

Or maybe he wanted to be greater than great. Maybe he thought he could be the greatest of all time only by cheating. He had the right idea in that first meeting with Cal, but things got off the track somewhere.

My favorite A-Rod story is kind of a sad one. Late in the 2001 season, I was having lunch with Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News at a Houston's restaurant on The Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.

At some point, Evan pointed toward a guy at the hostess stand.

"That's A-Rod's guy," he said.

We watched as the guy whispered to the hostess, pointed toward the back and appeared to be arranging for A-Rod to have a table in a quiet corner, a corner where he wouldn't be bothered by the thousands of screaming fans who were sure to mob him when he sat down.

Sure enough, moments later, A-Rod entered the restaurant and was escorted quietly and quickly to a table near the back of the restaurant.

Only thing is, no one recognized him. Not when he entered the restaurant. Not when he walked through the restaurant. Not when he began having lunch.

That story spoke volumes about A-Rod's perception of himself and how he sometimes just wasn't in touch with reality. Plenty of people have raged about him in recent years, but there was always a touch of sadness with him.

That said, he attempted to cheat the game, and in doing so, he sent a message to young players everywhere, young players who don't have his talent, that they needed to cheat, too.

He apparently thought the rules didn't apply to him and that if he was caught, he'd never be held accountable because, after all, everyone loves Alex. It'll be interesting to see if he can be a productive player, but at 38, nothing he can do now will repair the damage done to his reputation.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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