MIAMI. It’s the offseason for New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, but that doesn’t stop the man who many believe will end his career as the greatest home run hitter in baseball history from giving back to the community as he drives up to the Lobaugh Center for the Study of Osgood-Schlatter Disease and hops out of his car along with his publicist, Mary-Elena Forsyth.
“Thanks for finding time for us in your busy schedule,” says executive director Mel Arlen.
“No problem,” Rodriguez says. “Why don’t you give it a wash and wax while you’re at it.”
“This is a hospital,” Arlen replies, a bit confused. “We don’t offer detailing.”
“Oh, right. Just park it in a safe place, okay?”
A security officer emerges from the center and barks out “This is the emergency room entrance–you can’t park here.”
“Take care of it for me will you,” Rodriguez says as he flips the cop the keys and walks inside.
“I’m so glad you could come,” Arlen says as he leads the way down the hall. “These kids need a little hope in their lives.”
“What exactly do they have?”
“Well, Mr. Rod . . .”
“Please–call me A.”
“Sure. Anyway, Osgood-Schlatter Disease is one of the most common causes of knee pain in young athletes. It is characterized by swelling, pain and tenderness just below the knee, over the shin bone. It occurs mostly in boys who have a growth spurt during their pre-teen or teenage years. One or both knees may be affected.”
Rodriguez looks at his publicist. “Is this the best you could do?”
Forsyth shrugs her shoulders. “Goodwill didn’t need anybody else to help until Easter, and all the orthodontists are on vacation.”
“Cause it doesn’t sound so bad,” Rodriguez snaps at her. “Don’t forget–this is all about my image.”
Sensing trouble, Arlen intervenes. “These kids have nowhere else to turn–we don’t have a cure for Osgood-Schlatters, but we’re working on it.”
“So . . . their knees hurt,” Rodriguez continues. “What’s the big deal? Can’t they slide head-first?”
“That’s the problem,” Arlen replies. “They’re too young. Until they get to Babe Ruth League, they can’t. They have to do a hook slide, foot-first. It’s excruciating!”
“Okay, I got you,” Rodriguez says, a bit chastened. “Lead the way.”
The three turn into a ward where young boys are resting, their knees propped up in bed, waiting patiently for a few brief moments with the visiting celebrity. Little Timmy Salmon, an 11-year-old from Naples, Florida, is nearest the door. “Hi, Mr. Rodriguez!” he exclaims.
“Hey there, kiddo–what’s your name?”
“Timmy,” the boy says excitedly, clutching a baseball.
“Timmy . . .”
“Whatever. Are you a baseball fan?”
“You betcha, Mr. Rodriguez. I watch whenever you play the Tampa Bay Rays.”
“That’s great. Here, let me autograph your ball.”
As A-Rod starts to sign his name, the boy takes a gulp, hesitates, then speaks. “Could you . . .”
“Yes?” A-Rod asks.
“Could you . . . hit a home run for me?”
A-Rod looks in the boy’s eyes, and one can tell he’s been moved by the boy’s entreaty. “I tell you what, Kenny–I’ll do better than that.”
“You will?” the boy asks, incredulous.
“You bet. I’m gonna hit three home runs for you–in one game!”
“Oh, boy! That’d be great!”
“Of course, we’ll lose to the Orioles or the Blue Jays like, 8 to 3, but that’s not what matters.”
The look on the boy’s face turns from joy to confusion. “It’s not?”
“Nope. What counts is you,” A-Rod says with emphasis. “Just keep telling yourself–’I'm #1!’”
“No, you aren’t–I am. But I’ve found that narcissistic self-absorption comes in handy when you’re negotiating your next mega-million dollar contract.”
“Oh,” the boy says quietly.
“Well, time to move on,” the baseball great says. “Hope your arm gets better.”
“It’s my knee,” the boy says, but the group has moved on to the next bed, where eleven-year-old Tyler Kravetz has been patiently waiting for his turn.
“Hi Mr. Rodriguez,” he says with a big smile.
“Hey there kiddo,” A-Rod replies. “How they hangin’?”
The boy seems confused by the question, but is undeterred. “I just wish I could get out of this stupid hospital,” he says with irritation. “My CYO Basketball team is playing tomorrow.”
“That’s too bad,” Rodriguez says. “What can I do to make the pain of your whatchamacalit disease more unbearable.”
“I think you mean less unbearable,” says the publicist.
“Or more bearable,” says the executive director.
“What do they know, huh kid?” Rodriguez asks the boy with a smile. “They probably got better grades than me and you, but who’s got the private jet?”
“Uh, I don’t,” the boy replies.
“That’s right–I do! Anyway, what can I do for you?”
Tyler has obviously put a lot of thought into his request, and he takes a moment to compose himself before speaking. “If it’s not too much to ask . . .”
“I’d like you to knock a ball out of somebody’s hand for me.”
Rodriguez is visibly moved. “You know what, kid? I’d love to–but I got in trouble last time I did it.”
“Yeah–those mean old umpires said it was illegal, but I know I’m right.”
“Sure I am. When you play basketball, aren’t you allowed to knock the ball out of somebody’s hands?”
“Sure–I like to do that.”
“And in football, aren’t you supposed to knock the ball out of somebody’s hands?”
“I guess so.”
“So why can’t I do it in baseball?” Rodriguez asks, genuinely interested in the boy’s answer.
“Uh–because it’s against the rules?”
“Sure, but what kind of rule applies to both crummy players and greats like me? A bad one, that’s what kind. But I tell you what–next time I get a chance to take out that little shrimp Pedroia on the Red Sox, I’m gonna cream him!”
“But he’s only 5’7″, and you’re like 6’3″ . . .”
“Doesn’t matter, kid. If you get in the way of one of my patented backwards double-Salchow slides, you’re gonna pay for it.”
“Okay,” the boys says, somewhat mollified. “Try and hurt him, would you?”
“Sure,” Rodriguez says, pursing his lips to hold back a yawn. “Good to see you–gotta go, okay?”
“Okay,” the boy says, and the three adults move to the bed of Bobby Forman, a twelve-year-old from Sarasota.
“Why the long face?” Rodriguez asks, when he notices the boy’s sad expression.
“Nuthin’,” the boy replies, but it is clear he’s troubled by something.
“Would it help cheer you up if I hit a homer or got a ribbie for you, like in ‘The Lou Gehrig Story’?”
“No,” the boy says. “What I want has nothing to do with baseball.”
“No–it’s your social life.”
Rodriguez turns to look at the other two, a sly smile on his face. “Really?” he asks the boy. “So what is it?”
The boy sniffles, chokes back a sob, then begins. “I know you cheated on your wife–I read it in The Daily News,” he says.
A cloud passes over the countenance of the great slugger. “Look–sometimes these things just aren’t meant to be. Mommies and daddies may love each other very much, but . . .”
The boy interrupts him. “Spare me, would you? I know divorce statistics, not just the slugging percentage of a bunch of steroid-shooting muscleheads.”
“Okay,” Rodriguez says. “So what is it?”
“Well, you’re rich, good-looking and have a great set of pecs,” the boy begins. “You could have any woman you want.”
“I know–I’ve been romantically linked with Sofia Vergara, Jessica Canseco, Cynthia Scurtis–the list goes on and on!”
“You’re forgetting somebody,” the boy continues.
“You mean . . . Madonna?”
“On the nosey,” the boy says with a sharp tone, before breaking out in tears. “How could you?”
For the first time, Rodriguez displays irritation. “Listen, kid–I’ll date whoever I want, okay?”
“Sure, you’re a big star, nobody bosses you around. But before you go too far with her, maybe you should take a look at this,” he says as he whips a faded copy of People magazine from the mid-90′s out from behind his pillow.
“Where’d you get this?” Rodriguez asks.
“The physicians donate them to the kids when they’re too old for their waiting rooms,” the executive director chimes in. “For the tax deduction.”
“Take a look at the feature on Madonna and Dennis Rodman,” the boy says through his tears. “Do you really want to go where he’s gone before?”
As he turns the pages, the baseball great’s stomach turns as well. He closes the magazine, takes out his wallet and throws five hundred dollar bills on the bed.
“Here kid, buy yourself a Nintendo Wii when you get out okay? You’ve earned it.”