Frenemies: The Complicated History of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez
Derek Jeter, aka the captain, is one of the most beloved and respected names in sports. The flip, the dive, the 3000th hit, the walk-off knock on his last home at-bat; there are so many legendary moments in his storybook career. Jeter is a no-nonsense, team-first type of player that everybody respects. His Jordan brand slogan is even re2pect. His personality reflects his work ethic, straight to the point and serious. He never let anything distract him from winning. You can say he possessed the prized mamba mentality.
Alex Rodriguez, aka A-Rod, is one of the most controversial yet undeniably great players in MLB history. Rodriguez simply hit dingers; he launched 696 long balls in his career. (ESPN). But, off the field antics and steroid suspicion will always be associated with Rodriguez’s legacy. Rodriguez commonly got into brawls with other teams and is known for shit-talking to opposing players. Off the field, he seeks attention and is the opposite of shy. He is almost the exact opposite person of Jeter. Somehow these parallel superstars coexisted in the Bronx for ten seasons.
In a rare occurrence, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez recently sat together for an interview that was supposed to be about the BTIG charity event. From the get-go, there was an aura of discomfort surrounding the two former teammates. Within the first ten seconds of the interview, Bob Pisani casually asked “you guys friends now?” with an obvious tone of sarcasm. Rodriguez swiftly responded with a corny joke and Jeter reacted with a subtle, fake chuckle. The pair were clearly frustrated with the questions being asked. “You’re bringing up stories from 20 years ago, huh?” said Jeter with a much more serious tone than Pisani. “History channel,” Rodriguez added.
Six thousand, five hundred and eighty hits, twenty-eight all-star appearances, seven gold glove awards, and 6 world series rings; the careers of Jeter and Rodriguez are pretty respectable. (Baseball Reference). Despite the endless list of accolades, Jeter and Rodriguez will never escape the recurring questions about their relationship. Two of the biggest stars in the game, in the mecca of media, playing about twenty to thirty feet from each other at shortstop and third base for the most successful and iconic franchise in American sports. Every subtle gesture or look they give each other would generate a new headline. But how did things get so bad between the two that they can barely sit together for a charity interview without being asked about their pasts?
Jeter and Rodriguez were once close friends. They were both phenomenal young talents who entered the league around the same time. They both played shortstop and found success early on in their careers. Jeter was named rookie of the year in 1996 and helped lead the Yankees to a world series title. Rodriguez quickly became an all-star and the American League batting champion in his first season. The young pair of shortstops inevitably developed a tight friendship. They got so close that they would sleep over each other's houses when the Mariners and Yankees played each other. A former teammate of Jeter’s once asked him “are you going to your boyfriend’s house?” when the Yankees played the Mariners in 1998. They were like inseparable little kids who got excited every time they saw each other. After all, they were twenty-two-year-old kids who played baseball for a living, and they were both very, very good at it.
The loving relationship between Jeter and Rodriguez altered as the career paths of the two stars changed. Rodriguez was no doubt an outstanding player and had lots of personal success, but he was stuck on an average team. Sure the Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, but they lacked a solid pitching staff and never made it far in the playoffs. The Yankees, on the other hand, were a dynasty towards the end of the century. They won in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, and Jeter was a major role in the Yankee’s success. Jeter was a superstar in New York; he was loved by the fans and the media, and he quickly became the cover boy of major league baseball. Rodriguez was a better ballplayer than Jeter, yet he saw nearly the same attention and he became envious of Jeter.
In 2000, Rodriguez was a free agent and had the chance to sign with the Yankees. He declined, saying he would rather beat the Yankees than join them and that he wanted to have more billboards than Jeter in his new contract. Rodriguez ended up signing the richest contract in American sports with the Texas Rangers, a gigantic 252 million dollar deal. Rodriguez boasted about his new mega contract and publicly stated that he doesn’t think anyone will break his record in the near future, including Jeter. “A guy like Derek, it’s going to be hard for him to break that,” commented Rodriguez about his massive contract. Nevertheless, Jeter still got a hefty contract extension that same summer; he inked a 185 million dollar extension, which was still not close to Rodriguez’s figures. Jeter told Journal News, “I’m not trying to beat Alex’s record anyway. The only record I’m concerned with is Yogi’s record, and that’s the ten championships.”
The competition between Jeter and Rodriguez was just part of the beginning of the end of their friendship. The major tipping point came in 2001 when Esquire did a profile on Rodriguez. Jeter’s name came up multiple times in the magazine. Rodriguez talked about how he thought it was unfair that sportswriters and the media treated Jeter like a god while he was portrayed as a “dickhead”. Rodriguez went on to criticize Jeter some more, “He has been blessed with great talent around him.” Rodriguez may have had a valid point, Jeter was not a once in a generation type player, but Rodriguez’s harsh comments about his best friend caused a permanent dent in their relationship. I talked with MLB.com reporter Bryan Hoch who has covered the Yankees for the past 15 years to discuss the deterioration of Jeter and Rodriguez's friendship. “The Esquire interview may not have been the first domino to fall in the relationship, but once it was published, I think that became a point of no return as far as Derek was concerned.” Jeter felt hurt and betrayed by his former buddies’ comments and responded like the stern person he was. Hoch said about Jeter, “Derek did not forgive anyone who crossed him easily (he still doesn’t, really) and I believe that their relationship always had iciness after that.”
The situation only got more complicated in 2004 when, in a historic, blockbuster trade, Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees. Together at last, Jeter and Rodriguez in the same uniforms, playing for the same team. The Rangers realized that spending over 20 million dollars a year on one player isn’t worth it if you’re just going to lose all the time so they tried to trade Rodriguez to the Boston Red Sox. The trade with Boston eventually got blocked by the players union and, completely out of nowhere, the Yankees emerged to trade for Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s transition into pinstripes wasn’t as smooth as you would imagine; “I think there was a certain wariness of what Alex was going to introduce to the Yankees’ universe. Great player, reigning MVP, but massive contract and some baggage. Derek and his teammates wanted the focus to be on winning another World Series, but Alex’s arrival brought a lot of unwelcomed noise along with it.”
Rodriguez’s ability as a ballplayer definitely helped the Yankees on the field, but his antics and childish play style certainly had an impact. In the Yankees’ infamous 2004 collapse in the ALCS to the Red Sox, Rodriguez batted 2 for 17 and made headlines by slapping the ball out of Boston first baseman Bronson Arroyo’s glove. Red Sox players like Curt Schilling and Kevin Millar criticized Rodriguez, saying Jeter would never do anything so classless. Instead of standing up for his teammate, Jeter did his best to avoid controversy by staying silent. This pattern continued for a few years; Rodriguez would create stories while Jeter would try his hardest to avoid them.
An important chapter in Rodriguez’s career that is necessary to bring up is the PED scandals. In 2009, a Sports Illustrated article reported that Rodriguez tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in the previous season. In baseball, PEDs are legacy killers. Bonds, Mcguire, Clemens, Sosa, all of these names are synonymous with PEDs, not their achievements on the field. A scandal like this can affect the morale of the entire team; it could have created even more tension between Jeter and Rodriguez in the Yankees’ locker room. But, fortunately for the team and Rodriguez, the players seemed supportive of Rodriguez. Hoch stated, “I think considering Jeter’s background, it was hard for him to reconcile how Alex could have done some of the things that he did, given the natural ability he was blessed with.” If anything, the PED scandal showed that even though Jeter and Rodriguez had their differences, they were still teammates and they still believed in the best of each other.
2009 was an extremely important year in Yankee history. In their standards, the Yankees were in a playoff drought; they missed the postseason for the first time in over a decade in 2008 and their last world series title was in 2000. The team that dominated the turn of the century was gone; Joe Torre’s final season as manager was in 2008. There was a new urgency of winning in the Bronx. Hoch called it, “mission 27”. The team brought new players in during the offseason and it changed the chemistry in the clubhouse. Hoch said, “CC Sabathia brought the clubhouse together and Alex was especially tight with Melky Cabrera and Robbie Cano.” The team went on to win the world series that year against the Philadelphia Phillies. The championship run of 2009 even helped restore comradery between the broken relationship between Rodriguez and Jeter. “There was a moment after the ALDS win in Minnesota when Derek, Alex, Kate Hudson, and Minka Kelly all sat together and enjoyed a party being held in their hotel ballroom,” Hoch stated. “Given their ups and downs, it said a lot that a moment like that could still happen.”
Jeter and Rodriguez will probably never again be the loving pair of besties who slept over each other's houses. The quick change in their relationship shows how journalism and sports media can affect people. There were many reasons why Jeter and Rodriguez drifted apart as friends; different career paths, different goals as players, and different personalities were big keys, but the few words of criticism that was published in the 2001 Esquire profile was the big divider. Both players acted like children who refused to forgive each other for a seemingly insignificant reason. To this day, Jeter and Rodriguez are not one hundred percent compatible. When I asked Hoch about Jeter and Rodriguez today, he said, “I think they're on speaking terms, but I don’t think they’ll ever hang out. Derek is much closer with Jose Posada.” The charity interview with CNBC sums up their current relationship; awkwardness and avoidance. In 2017, at Jeter’s jersey retirement ceremony, almost all of his former teammates attended except for one. When asked if he was even invited to the ceremony, Rodriguez responded, “It was Mother’s Day. I was with my mom.”