When the Seattle Mariners shipped Alex Rodriguez to the Calgary Cannons on August 2, 1994, the Triple-A club’s general manager Gary Arthur trumpeted the young shortstop as the “Mario Lemieux” of the 1993 Major League Baseball amateur draft.
But even this lofty hockey comparison couldn’t convince Calgarians to flock to the 6,000-seat Foothills Stadium to see the 19-year-old phenom. Just 4,519 fans would witness his Stampede City debut, a number only nominally better than the team’s average attendance (4,444) to that point in the campaign.
“Calgary was never much of a baseball market,” said Gyle Konotopetz, the Calgary Herald sportswriter who covered Rodriguez’s tenure with the Cannons. “A-Rod was a pretty good drawing card in other cities, but in Calgary, he didn’t make much of a blip on the scale.”
Yes, before A-Rod was belting homers at a record pace, using steroids or cavorting with strippers in Toronto, he was a fresh-faced, happy-go-lucky teen who would play 32 games with a Canadian squad in 1994.
The Lemieux analogy aside, there wasn’t a lot of hype surrounding the first overall pick’s arrival in Calgary.
“The sports media might have heard something of him, but they certainly didn’t hype him up like they would today,” said John Traub, the Cannons director of media relations at the time and now the general manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Albuquerque Isotopes. “Remember, he was not ‘A-Rod’ then; he was merely ‘Alex.’”
The can’t-miss infielder had landed in Alberta after an unsuccessful big league stint. After initially bypassing Triple-A as he rocketed through the Mariners’ chain, Rodriguez had suited up for 17 big league games in July, but hit just .204 with 11 singles. His demotion to Calgary was likely a humbling experience for him.
“He was a polite young man,” said Traub, when asked about his first impression of Rodriguez.
“He was very pleasant for a guy who just got sent down,” he said. “He was just a nice kid. He wasn’t overly cocky – but a little on the cocky side as one would expect from someone so gifted.”
Cannons manager Steve Smith inserted Rodriguez at shortstop and batted him eighth in the future star’s first game with the club on August 4. In his debut, the thin, long-legged, 6-foot-3 prospect would register a single in four at bats in the Cannons’ 14-2 thumping of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.
For the bulk of his tenure with the Cannons, Rodriguez manned shortstop and hit eighth or ninth in the order.
“That was typical Steve Smith,” said Konotopetz, of A-Rod hitting low in the order. “He didn’t want to put any additional pressure on Alex.”
Despite his uber prospect status, Rodriguez fit in well with his teammates.
“He was a likable guy. He was always smiling,” recalled Konotopetz. “And people liked being around him, which is a little rare for a top prospect in Triple-A.”
One of his Cannons teammates was Dave Brundage, who was a player/coach with Calgary at the time.
“I remember seeing a young man with oodles of talent, but he was struggling an awful lot early on,” recalled Brundage, who now manages the Gwinnett Braves, Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate. “But he always had a strong work ethic and he still does today.”
Rodriguez socked his first homer with the Cannons on August 10 in Calgary’s 11-3 romp over Albuquerque, but it was in a double-header against the Vancouver Canadians on August 27 that Rodriguez really hit his stride.
“I remember Alex hitting two home runs (that day) – and not just two home runs, two majestic shots. They were mammoth home runs,” said Brundage. “After that, I think he really felt like he could do well at that level. He was a different hitter from that point on.”
The home runs would help the Cannons sweep the double-header and temporarily move them into first place. Unfortunately, Vancouver would win both games in a twin bill the following day, initiating a four-game losing skid for the Cannons, which essentially destroyed their playoff hopes.
Rodriguez, however, continued to impress and he was moved into the leadoff spot for games on September 2 and September 3 and he batted third in the season finale. In all, in 32 games with Calgary, Rodriguez hit .311 with six homers and 21 RBIs.
“You could see his talent … but did I think he would hit 600 home runs in the big leagues?” said Brundage. “I’d be lying if I said I thought he’d do that. But I was fortunate to see him when he was 19 years old when the game had humbled him and then I got to watch him come into his own.”
Konotopetz also has fond memories of A-Rod in Calgary.
“He was just a guy with this big smile on his face, and he hardly ever stopped smiling,” he said. “The players loved him, and Smith said he was a treat to manage.”
It’s difficult for Konotopetz to comprehend how Rodriguez has changed since he was a happy-go-lucky teen in Alberta.
“Calgary was affiliated with the Mariners for 10 seasons, and they had so many prospects that came through the city. And a lot of them were so cocky you couldn’t even speak to them,” reflected Konotopetz. “A-Rod was different. He was pretty well grounded. He was down to earth. So I was surprised watching his evolution in the game, as he made more and more money and got the big contract and became a Yankee. It’s actually surprising to me to see how much he has changed. I thought maybe this was the one player who wouldn’t be spoiled by the big contracts and being a superstar.”
The year 1994 doesn’t seem that long ago, but sixteen years is most of a career. I’m sure Rodriguez would do a few things differently if he had the chance. That last sentence is kind of sad, isn’t it? You’d think raw talent and hard work would have been enough.
It was also interesting to read about the team playing back-to-back doubleheaders. When does that ever happen these days?
Great job, Kevin, as usual.