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The $252 million man

Rodriguez rose from humble beginnings
to be the highest-paid baseball player in history

(CNN) -- There are 252 million reasons that a lot more people know who Alex Rodriguez is than did this time last year.

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The 25-year-old Rodriguez signed the most lucrative contract in sports history in December. The Texas Rangers will pay Rodriguez $252 million over the next 10 years to play baseball.

The resulting publicity and the ballplayer's good looks have landed him on the cover of GQ and other magazines. But the news of his huge paycheck has made Rodriguez -- nicknamed "A-Rod" -- a focal point for critics who say out-of-the-ballpark salaries will ruin the national pastime by bankrupting small-market teams.

Of course, the owners of nearly all baseball teams would probably be happy to pay Rodriguez a similar amount of money if they could. But Rodriguez said the pressure he's under now is nothing compared with his life growing up in a family struggling to make ends meet.

"Pressure to me is having to pay the rent at the end of the month, and you don't know where the next dollar is coming from," he said. "I've been there before, and that to me is real pressure."

Rodriguez was born in New York City in 1975, the third child of Victor and Lourdes Rodriguez. His father played amateur baseball in the Dominican Republic and made enough money from the Manhattan shoe store he owned that he moved the family back to his homeland to retire when Rodriguez was 4.

Picking up baseball in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, the average monthly wage is $150, and baseball is the ticket out of poverty. More than 10 percent of all major league players last season were Dominican. Home run slugger Sammy Sosa is a national hero.

It was in the Dominican Republic that Rodriguez began developing the fundamentals for baseball and life.

"The three years in the Dominican really grounded me in a sense where it gave me a foundation, I think, for the rest of my life," he said.

But an economic downturn forced Rodriguez's father to move the family to Miami, Florida, to open another shoe store. When he was 9, his dad told the family he needed to work in New York for a little while. He never came back, according to Rodriguez, and his parents later divorced.

In a children's book Rodriguez wrote called "Hit a Grand Slam," he talks about the pain of losing his father. "Whatever his true reasons for leaving and not staying in touch, I can forgive him," he wrote. "I have to let go of that anger to move forward. The problem is, I can't forget what he did."

Alex's mother worked two to three jobs to support the family. She was a secretary in an immigration office during the day and then waited tables at a local restaurant well into the night.

J.D. Arteaga, now a minor league pitcher with the Houston Astros, grew up with Rodriguez in Miami. His father, Juan Arteaga, was a Little League coach who became something of a second father to Rodriguez.

Juan Arteaga took Rodriguez to play baseball at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami. Rodriguez often fell asleep on the sofa in the Boys Club office until his mother came to pick him up at 11 p.m.

"The Boys and Girls Club was a great place for me to grow up because it gave me an avenue to stay away from drugs, alcohol. And have a place where you can go do your homework, play ball. And basically there's no pressure there," Rodriguez said.

Major league scouts take notice

At 15, Rodriguez wanted to play for the baseball team at a private school known for turning out great baseball players, but the teen's mother was hard-pressed to come up with the $5,000 tuition.

With the help of a scholarship, his mother scraped together the money. Rodriguez and Arteaga played baseball together there under Coach Rich Hofman in what was affectionately known as the Hof-ball system -- lots of fundamentals and discipline.

Under Hofman, Rodriguez began to learn the basics of the game. His baseball skills improved dramatically. He even caught the eye of agent Scott Boras, who saw him play at a tournament in Mexico.

But just as everything seemed to be falling into place for Rodriguez, tragedy struck during his sophomore year. Juan Arteaga died while Rodriguez and J.D. Arteaga were playing a football game.

"He was the guy who treated me like his third child," Rodriguez said. "He just had a stroke and passed away. So that was a tough time."

Forced to deal with losing a father figure for a second time, Rodriguez responded by dedicating himself to baseball. During his junior year, he hit leadoff, batting .450, and helped guide his team to a 35-2 record and a national championship.

His play gained more attention, and dozens of scouts showed up to watch him his senior year. With the baseball draft approaching, the pressure was mounting.

A deal with the Mariners

On June 6, 1993, the Seattle Mariners made Rodriguez the No. 1 draft pick in the nation. Amid the celebration, he got a call from his father, the first time Rodriguez said he had heard from his dad since he left nine years earlier.

The Mariners signed Rodriguez to a $1.3 million contract after some hardball negotiating from the agent he hired, Boras. He bought a $34,000 Jeep Cherokee and put himself on a $1,000 a month allowance.

But he also had to prove he was worth it. He bounced around the minor leagues for a while, a hard adjustment for a young man just out of high school.

"The toughest job for him was when he went from Double A to Triple A. Just because he was an 18-year-old kid and played with other guys in their late 20s, early 30s," Arteaga said.

He got called up to major leagues -- the Show, as it's known to minor league players -- almost immediately, the first 18-year-old to play in the majors in a decade. He had a shaky start in his first game, going 0-for-3.

But his numbers steadily improved. In 1996, his first full major league season, he was selected Major League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. He was the American League batting champ and came just three votes shy of being selected MVP.

In 1998, he joined the elite 40/40 club, hitting 42 homers and stealing 46 bases. When at last the four-time All Star was able to shop his services around as a free agent -- to work for any club for whatever salary he could negotiate -- he was one of baseball's most marketable players. Boras put together a 70-page book, at a reported cost of $35,000, to tout his talent.

Hitting the free-agent jackpot

The Mariners wanted to keep Rodriguez. The Atlanta Braves and New York Mets also expressed interest. But after Rangers owner Tom Hicks flew Rodriguez to Dallas in his private jet and after a marathon negotiating session with Boras, the deal was done.

"What really impressed him, I think, was the fact that the owner first of all picked him up, kind of wined and dined him, showed him around and said, 'Look, this is my empire. I want you to be a big piece of this empire,' " Hofman said.

But criticism of his large salary was immediate. It is $2 million more than Rangers owner Hicks paid George W. Bush, then the owner and Texas governor, and his partners when Hicks bought the entire team in 1998.

For A-Rod, the numbers boil down to an average salary of more than $25 million a year. And if his numbers are consistent with last year's, he'll make more than $170,000 per game and more than $45,000 every time he's at bat.

"I don't think anyone's worth this type of money, obviously. But that's the market that we're in today," Rodriguez said.

But critics say that market will have a negative impact, creating a future with a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in major league baseball that could drive some franchises out of business.

"It is the fault of the entire business that they haven't figured out a way to make sure that clubs like Montreal or Pittsburgh have available the resources to play at that level," said Roger Abrams, author of "The Money Pitch: Baseball Free Agency and Salary Arbitration."

On top of his baseball revenues, Rodriguez also rakes in money in endorsements. He fronts everything from Armour hot dogs to Radio Shack to Armani suits. But he also gives some of his millions back. He holds a glitzy fund-raiser every year for the Miami Boys and Girls Club. He has donated baseball fields and scholarships to the Miami Boys and Girls Club, and he donates his time as well. He wants to help build a 3,500-square-foot learning center at the Miami club.

Is he worth it?

Rodriguez's salary has intensified the glare from the public spotlight. There are more demands on his time and money.

"My status hasn't changed much. I mean things are magnified a little bit more, I realize that. And it's going to be for me a transition here as far as both professionally and in my personal life," Rodriguez said.

Speaking of his personal life, will all that money sour his milk-and-cookies reputation? From all indications, the only time you could call Rodriguez a "swinger" is when he steps up to the plate. He's still one of the most eligible bachelors around although currently he said he's unavailable.

He said he has few regrets but he's wrestled with whether he should have gone to college instead of going pro.

"I'm still pursuing my college degree, and I haven't obtained that yet. And that's a promise I made to my mother," he said. "That's the one regret that I have looking at my life."

Rodriguez also is coming to terms with the father he never really knew. Years after that phone call on draft day, his father contacted him again. The two have gotten together several times since.

"We're working on it. It's better. And that's all I'm going to say about that," Rodriguez said.

For now, Rodriguez plays with the burden of the question that will nag at him every time he commits an error, every time he strikes out -- is he worth it?

All the money the Texas Rangers shelled out for Rodriquez hasn't managed to buy them a winning season so far. At the beginning of July, the Rangers are buried in the basement of their division. (Which team is leading? The Seattle Mariners, off to one of the best starts in major league history.)

"I think this year is going to be a difficult year for him because he's going to be reminded every five minutes that he got too much money," Hofman said. "And every time he doesn't get a base hit, he's not earning his income."

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