By Joe Gustav
The line stretched down the block in Pioneer Square early that Saturday morning in September 1998. It was the longest line I’d waited in during my 10 years of life.
Lawn chairs in tow, my dad, younger brother, and I were two hours early outside Elliott Bay Books for Alex Rodriguez’s signing of his new children’s book, “Hit A Grand Slam.”
Entering his third full season in the bigs, Rodriguez already had a batting title, an All-Star start, and a second-place MVP finish under his belt – and now a book in the Positively for Kids series, which featured inspirational and educational autobiographies from stars including Cal Ripken Jr., Steve Young, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Mo Vaughn.
I wasn’t really there for the book. I wanted that autograph. On the most popular team in town, Alex Rodriguez was big-city cool and so talented that even East Coast writers claimed he could be the best ever.
The line finally started moving. We inched down Main, then into the bookstore’s basement. For some reason I wasn’t as nervous as the year before when I’d gotten Joey Cora’s autograph during a signing at the West Seattle Safeway. Then, I’d even gelled my hair to try to look cool. When my turn came to step up to his table I was too overwhelmed to say anything.
But this time, once downstairs, I was glad I hadn’t given any extra effort to being cool. It wasn’t like A-Rod would see me anyway. He sat in an assembly line on a raised platform as book buyers marched past to the register. Three or four people assisted him, passing down books, opening them for him, then sliding them down to be stacked and sold.
He seemed generally affable, exchanging a word here or there with his helpers up top. He smiled at a couple fans who waved at him. I don’t remember him acknowledging me, but I’m sure I didn’t make an effort to get noticed. My dad bought two copies for my brother and I and we were back outside the store before we even knew it.
I think I read “Hit A Grand Slam” once before getting back to my “Goosebumps” books. A-Rod’s book wasn’t the best read in the world, but I learned a lot about the Mariner player. His years growing up in the Dominican Republic, the pain from his father abandoning his family, getting grilled by Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner for being late to batting practice.
The main message of the book was to “hit a grand slam in life” by hitting the four bases of reading, math, physical fitness and citizenship.
Fame and fortune don’t matter (“the money doesn’t make the man,” he recounted being told by mentor Barry Bonds); being true to yourself, your family and friends, and your community, does.
This will be the first spring training in 19 years that Rodriguez won’t be in camp. Obviously, a lot has changed. Elliott Bay Books isn’t in Pioneer Square. The Mariners are far from the toast of the town. And I don’t think A-Rod will be asked to espouse any more life lessons in future children’s books.
It’s easy to pick out lines from “Hit A Grand Slam” and read them with sarcasm. Such as when he talks about how “it’s not all about the Benjamins.” Or when a childhood friend gives testimony at the end of the book that “money hasn’t changed him. There’s no dark side.”
But there’s one book passage that really sticks out. On the second-to-last page, A-Rod discusses the trajectory of a player’s personality during his career. In the middle of players’ careers, they act cocky and arrogant. As their skills decline, they’re humbled and they become nicer people as a result. Finally, “by the time they retire, they’re great citizens again.”
“I want to be at that last level now,” he wrote in 1998.
I don’t know Alex Rodriguez, I never have and I won’t pretend to. I’m sure Alex and his actions are much more complex than those presumed by the media or propogated by Major League Baseball in their aggressive pursuit of his suspension.
But I can’t help but think of that passage about citizenship and humbleness, and the ideal he hoped to achieve and never seems to have attained. Maybe he was closest to it when I was a 10-year-old boy in a long line of admirers, shuffling past unnoticed.
Joe Gustav, 25, is a lifelong Seattleite and the author of “In Deep: The Story of Global Diving & Salvage,” to be released in April from Documentary Media. When the Mariners win the World Series, he will get his first tattoo.