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The insane plot to trade Alex Rodriguez.

A lone star

This just in: Alex Rodriguez is on the trading block … Ooops, this just in while we were typing out the previous “This just in”—Alex Rodriguez is definitely not on the trading block … OK, wait a minute. Neither one of those just-ins is definite. They’re both maybes. Maybe the Texas Rangers want to trade him, maybe they don’t.

Alex Rodriguez is the best player in the American League, arguably the best player in baseball—at least the best one not called to testify in a federal grand jury investigation of a performance-enhancing drug company—and definitely the most valuable.He is one of the two best players (Honus Wagner being the other) in baseball history at the game’s key defensive position. He is the only bona fide complete-player superstar under the age of 30. He just won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award, an honor tarnished by the silly carping of baseball writers and commentators who would argue that a player on a losing team can’t be the most valuable player. (Why, exactly? If Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or Barry Bonds played for a last-place team, why should that fact make them less valuable?)

Yet, Alex Rodriguez is on the trading block. Well, not actually on the trading block, just the first step on the way up to the trading block. “Since the end of the season,” the team said in a press release late Monday afternoon, “the Texas Rangers have specifically stated that we are not actively seeking to trade Alex Rodriguez. However, we have received inquiries from other clubs regarding Alex. As part of the process Rangers owner [Tom Hicks] has had conversations with Alex regarding these inquiries and to alert him about potential options.” Now what “potential options” could those be? There are only a handful of teams that can afford to absorb Rodriguez’s $25 million per year contract, and the two of the richest, the Yankees and Mets, have said no. None of the others have publicly expressed any interest. There are barely any rumors of other clubs being interested in trading for baseball’s best player; most of them have come from Texas.

What’s going on here? There isn’t any precedent in two centuries for a team wanting to trade a player of Rodriguez’s value, youth, and durability—except, of course, Babe Ruth. There are, whatever Red Sox fans might think, mitigating circumstances regarding that deal; the Boston owner, Harry Frazee, needed the money, or at least he said he did, and there was widespread feeling at the time that Ruth’s eye-popping total of 29 home runs was a fluke. Alex Rodriguez is no fluke. He has been the most valuable player in the American League almost every year since he became a full-time player in 1996, whether he won the award or not. And the only carping about his recent MVP selection ought to be that it isn’t his third or fourth.

And the Texas Rangers don’t need the money. The myth that they do is one of the most cherished in sports, one carefully cultivated by the Rangers and Major League Baseball and swallowed almost whole by the country’s baseball press—and the rest of the press, too—as exemplified by Lesley Stahl’s question to A-Rod’s agent, Scott Boras, during the March 25, 2001, edition of 60 Minutes:

“Do you ever feel,” Stahl asked Boras, “that you have gone too far [in getting a $250 million, 10 year contract for his client]? Do you ever say, ‘Oh, my God! This is—this is gross. This is so out—a quarter of a billion dollars’?” “So ‘out’ of what, exactly, Ms. Stahl? If your ratings allowed your agent to get you the same kind of deal, what would you reply to one of your 60 Minutes colleagues who drilled you with ‘Do you ever ask yourself if it’s gross?’ “”Are you embarrassed?” Stahl asked Boras and Rodriguez.

They shouldn’t have been, Lesley, but you should have been for asking the question.

Americans are always embarrassed about the subject of the big money paid to professional athletes because, at heart, we know they’re paid that because it reflects how much more we care about them than the things we say are more important. The notion that the Texas Rangers and owner Hicks were bamboozled by Boras in the Rodriguez deal should have been dispelled long ago. First of all, with deferred payments and the interest that began accumulating on the Rangers’ money before Rodriguez was even paid his first salary, the sum the Rangers pay A-Rod every season surely comes to considerably less than $25 million.

Second, and more to the point, the Rangers didn’t exactly reach into their pockets to pay Rodriguez. They had the money for his contract because Fox Sports Net bought the 10-year cable rights to the Rangers and Dallas Stars hockey games for $250 million, and paid another $250 million for both teams’ local broadcast rights for 15 years, according to some sources (Forbes reported the latter deal at $300 million). The Rangers, presumably, got the lion’s share of that money. The TV deals boosted the value of the team, as reported in Forbes, by 16 percent, and the addition of A-Rod beefed up their revenues considerably. The Rangers jacked up their ticket prices by an average of 10 percent for Rodriguez’s first season, 2001, and finessed several new endorsement deals, including a sponsorship pact with Radio Shack.

The question that should have been asked three years ago was not “How can the Rangers afford to pay Alex Rodriguez $250 million?” but “Why don’t the Rangers use some of the money produced by those deals and the acquisition of Rodriguez to buy some pitching?”

Why then are the Rangers willing to part with the most valuable property in baseball? Possibly because, at this point, there’s more money in dealing him. The TV contracts are in place for several more years, and the Rangers will continue to receive the money whether they’re paying his salary or not. Whatever the reason, the fact is that any money saved by dumping A-Rod’s contract would be pure profit—minus the cost of a new shortstop. Maybe the Rangers can get Royce Clayton back. Clayton was the man A-Rod replaced in 2001. In 2000, he hit .242 with 14 home runs to Rodriguez’s .316 and 41 home runs. This past season, Clayton hit .228 with 11 home runs and made $1.5 million. You get what you pay for.