It's the summer of 2013, and Alex Rodriguez is finally getting the love and acceptance he craves. As he basks in the praise for his 715th career home run and takes aim at Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, he's embracing the role of beloved elder statesman.
Critics who once slammed Rodriguez for wilting under pressure now admire him for the consistency, sportsmanship and strong work ethic he's displayed since breaking into professional ball with Seattle two decades ago.
He is 38 years old and he has never flunked a steroid test, posed for a mug shot, pulled a gun at a stop light or defamed the game with questionable off-field behavior. So who cares if he weighs his remarks for public consumption and seems obsessed with his self-image? Baseball fans certainly don't care as they stand and cheer, and sportswriters hail Rodriguez as the man who's about to ride to the rescue and knock Bonds from the top of the record books.
What uniform will A-Rod be wearing when he sets the home run record? As everybody knows, that question was resolved in November 2007.
The $252 million contract that Rodriguez signed with Texas six years ago is stunning for its magnitude and noteworthy for agent Scott Boras' foresight. It includes a clause giving Rodriguez the freedom to opt out after the 2007 season for any reason, and again in 2008 or 2009 if he's not earning $1 million more than the second highest-paid position player in the game.
Now that Manny Ramirez is staying in Boston and Bonds is re-signing with San Francisco -- we think -- it's the hot rumor du jour: A-Rod, tired of his best never being good enough in New York, plans to take advantage of his "opt out'' clause and flee for a more favorable environment.
He's not the only big leaguer with an escape clause. A.J. Burnett and Vernon Wells have similar opt-out provisions in Toronto. Aramis Ramirez just took advantage of one to negotiate a five-year, $75 million contract with the Cubs, and J.D. Drew left Los Angeles after two years to sign a $70 million deal with Boston.
Boras told ESPN.com that opt-out clauses are a way for players to protect themselves against all sorts of unforeseen developments -- from ownership upheaval to changing personal circumstances. "These things are about choice,'' he said. "When you do the contract, you can't always anticipate what the issues will be.''
Front-office executives generally agree that opt-out clauses are a no-win proposition for teams. If a free agent is bad (e.g., Chan Ho Park), he gets the cash regardless. If the player performs well and the market goes crazy, he can use his opt-out clause to hit the open market or squeeze an extension out of his current club.
"It certainly is for the most part a player-friendly clause,'' said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who was not a happy man when Drew opted out in Los Angeles. "There's little debate on that.''
So why do teams give them? Maybe it entices a player to sign for a slight discount, or serves as Plan B when a club is averse to giving out no-trade clauses. More likely, it's as simple as the player and his agent holding firm and the team saying, "Let's do it and worry about the repercussions later.''
If Rodriguez leaves New York, it will be the headline story of the next Hot Stove season. We're talking about a 12-time All-Star and two-time Most Valuable Player who makes news when he's getting a tan in Central Park. Rodriguez has averaged 40 homers and 119 RBI in New York, but he still makes some Yankees fans wistful for the Scott Brosius era.
Publicly, at least, Rodriguez is pledging allegiance to the Yankees. And Boras, true to form, is keeping his negotiating options open.
"I don't think Alex personalizes it,'' Boras said. "He knows when you're a New York Yankee and the Yankees don't win, that players of a certain stature are going to get a certain response from the fans. He accepts that.
"He's in a very good situation. He's playing for a team he loves to play for, and he can either evaluate [the clause] or let it pass. Frankly, he doesn't have to do anything.''
What will A-Rod do? Here are three possibilities:
Scenario 1: Rodriguez's 2007 regular-season numbers are impressive, but they're rendered meaningless when the Yankees are bounced in the Division Series. It's A-Rod's fourth straight October flameout, and he's getting torched on WFAN radio and buried in the tabloids. He's thinking about wearing a Bobby Valentine nose-and-glasses disguise around town just to maintain his sanity.
"He's in a very good situation. He's playing for a team he loves to play for, and he can either evaluate [the escape clause in his contract] or let it pass. Frankly, he doesn't have to do anything."
-- Agent Scott Boras on Alex Rodriguez
The good news is, Rodriguez's production still ranks among the elite players in the game. As it becomes increasingly clearer that the A-Rod-New York union isn't working and he's going to opt out, potential suitors are standing in line.
The Angels are always looking for help for Vladimir Guerrero, and the Dodgers might be willing to sign another big Boras client despite the hard feelings from Drew's abrupt departure. The Nationals want a marquee name as they prepare to move into a new park in April 2008, and the Red Sox, those freethinkers, can never be counted out as players. Maybe Seattle fails to re-sign Ichiro Suzuki and decides to dump Adrian Beltre and bring back A-Rod to resurrect the good old days.
Rodriguez is guaranteed $81 million over his final three seasons in New York, and that $27 million annual payout will be tough to surpass. But if Boras can land him $150 million-plus for a long-term deal and a fresh start, it will be tough for A-Rod to resist taking the plunge.
Scenario 2: Rodriguez hits the jackpot. He belts 50 home runs, wins a third MVP award and the Yankees capture the World Series for the first time since 2000. He enjoys a public relations makeover, just as Peyton Manning did after winning the Super Bowl. Derek Jeter and his teammates embrace him as a "true Yankee,'' and everyone is so giddy after the parade, it's no longer outlandish to envision him finishing his career in pinstripes.
Because Texas is responsible for a third of the $81 million New York must pay Rodriguez from 2008 through 2010, the Yankees are basically getting a year of A-Rod for free. Boras is happy to make that point when he approaches general manager Brian Cashman about an extension.
Boras is also sure to note that Rodriguez is better than Alfonso Soriano, who received $136 million from the Cubs at age 31, and that the Yankees will enjoy ample benefits from A-Rod's chasing Babe Ruth in New York. In fact, the rhetoric has already begun.
"It's very clear to all people in baseball that Alex is stepping into a time in his career that's going to be historic in the next decade,'' Boras said. "He has an opportunity to have Ruthian and Aaron-like performances in his career. There aren't many players in the history of the game you can say that about.''
Scenario 3: Rodriguez has a good season, but not good enough for the Yankees to consider an extension. Boras surveys the market and has no assurances he can do better elsewhere. So A-Rod remains in New York, forced to get by with no love and a mere $24 million base salary with $3 million deferred at 3 percent compound interest.
Whatever happens, it's bound to be eventful.
"I can assure you one thing,'' said an American League executive. "That clause will not pass without Scott using it as a leverage point.''
You can count on that.