One of baseball’s nostalgic joys is fans’ personal “I Was There When” lists. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two lists are the same. And most are filled more with middling events (“I Was There When Steve Carlton Pitched With The Cleveland Indians!”) than Hall of Fame-caliber headlines (“I Was There When Steve Carlton Won His 300th Game!”)
I have one of those lists. It’s fairly mundane.
I’ve never seen a no-hitter. I’ve witnessed two bench-clearing brawls. (Here’s one.) I’ve never attended a World Series game inside the stadium. I have attended a World Series game from outside the stadium, in snow flurries, just for fun. (Seriously.) I’ve attended Opening Day as a fan and as a reporter. I’ve attended an NLCS Game 7 that still gives me nightmares. (Google STL-ATL 1996). I’ve seen Bo Jackson hit a baseball out of a stadium. I’ve disappeared into the corn at the Field of Dreams in Iowa. There have been three Busch Stadiums, and I’ve seen games in only one of them. I’ve seen games in Clinton, Iowa, and Jackson, Tennessee, and Rome, Georgia, and Frederick, Maryland, and a bunch of pinprick places I can’t remember, but I’ve never seen a game in Los Angeles or New York, even though I’ve often visited those cities. But I’m proud of my list nonetheless.
Alex Rodriguez is on my list.
Before the Mariners, before the Rangers, before the Yankees, before PEDs, before Hall of Fame talk, before J-Lo, before his gig with ESPN, Rodriguez was a teenager fresh out of a Miami high school and the first prep player to be invited to Team USA tryouts. He soon would be the top pick in the MLB draft. In the summer of 1993, my wife, Laura, and I thought we’d take in a game at the Team USA training center in Millington, Tennessee, just north of my hometown of Memphis.
And why not? The team was loaded with presumptive future MLB stars — Todd Helton, for instance — the game was close to my parents’ house and, well, Rodriguez was already a thing. A Big Thing. Team USA had a four-game exhibition series that June against Australia. So, off we went.
And, yes, we saw Alex Rodriguez.
But he didn’t play. That I remember, though I have no recollection why teenage Alex was in street clothes that night. So I looked it up.
Turns out, Rodriguez didn’t make Team USA in 1993 because he refused to sign an agreement with Topps, the baseball card company that sponsored the U.S. squad. Rodriguez was already aligned with another card company and stood to make a killing on his rookie card in professional baseball. The Topps agreement would have paid him pennies.
That impasse caused Team USA to cut Rodriguez. Sponsors rule.
“I take a lot of advice from my mother,” Rodriguez told New York’s Newsday. “It was really tough leaving that clubhouse, but my mom said, ‘You’ve got to be treated fairly.'”
That’s why Rodriguez is on my list — for not playing in a game that I drove five hours to see him play in. (I don’t know if he didn’t play that night because of the Topps standoff or some other reason, but the result was the same nonetheless.) And Team USA went on to win three of the four games against the Australians, with Helton, before becoming a star in Colorado, showing off.
As for Millington, well, the park there wasn’t much, and still isn’t. (Sorry, Millington. Truth, though.) It’s a Class A-level stadium with few amenities and not much else. I always thought it weird that Team USA trained at that facility during part of the 1990s. It’s no surprise that Olympic baseball training now resides at more appropriate digs in Cary, North Carolina.
A few years later, after Rodriguez had made the majors, my wife and I finally saw him play for the Mariners one summer against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
That was cool, but it didn’t make my list.