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Sunday, March 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Missing Dad -- In The 13 Years Since His Father Left, Alex Rodriguez Has Found Fortune And Fame In Seattle, But Has Been Unable To Reconcile With The Man Who Vanished

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. - As he crushes pitches all around major-league ballparks, it appears he hasn't a care in the world.

As he steals bases and cruises shortstop, it appears he has it all.

Alex Rodriguez has much - health and wealth, film-star looks and charisma, fame, friends and good fortune galore. All his, so young.

But he doesn't have it all.

Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez doesn't have a father.

And at the core of his existence, for all the love of his mother, sister and brother, for all the happy times and national attention, there is an empty place.

"Dad left us when I was 9," Rodriguez said. "What did I know back then? I thought he was coming back. I thought he had gone to the store or something. But he never came back. . . . It still hurts."

Victor Rodriguez left his family in Miami. He had been a successful businessman, operating a busy shoe store in Manhattan and creating enough financial security that he and his wife, Lourdes, returned to their native Dominican Republic to retire with their three children, Susy, Joe and baby Alex.

But the relatives Victor left running the store started running it down. Forced back to work, the Rodriguezes moved to Miami and opened another store.

"From talking with Mom, I found out that Miami wasn't fast-paced enough for Dad, that he wanted to go back to New York and Mom didn't," Rodriguez said. "They talked but couldn't agree. So he split."

Rodriguez did not hear from his father for nine years, until the day the Mariners made him the first player taken in the June 1993 amateur draft.

When at first his father left, the boy was bewildered. Victor had been such a good father. He couldn't just have turned his back on him . . . could he?

"He had been so good to me, actually spoiled me because I was the baby of the family. I couldn't understand what he had done," Rodriguez said.

"To this day, I still don't really know how a man could do that to his family: turn his back."

If Lourdes dwelled upon her husband's fate, she never showed it. With a family to support, she hardly had time. She became a secretary in a Miami immigration office. At night, she waited tables.

She wound up owning an immigration office, and a Latin-American restaurant, too.

"My mom is hard-working and smart," Rodriguez said. "As you can see, she is also a good businesswoman. I wanted to give her $10,000 once to go away on a great vacation, to rest, to thank her for all she had done for us. She said she would invest the money instead."

When you see Rodriguez create memorable moments on offense or defense, it could be with skill inherited from his father, whom he remembers as a good athlete.

But when you see him dig hard to first base on any simple ground ball, or if you ever got a chance to see him out early mornings in camp practicing with Joey Cora, it is with the spirit, the pure work ethic, of his mother.

Lourdes Navarro, remarried years ago, instilled this heart in her children. Susy earned her law degree. Joe went into business.

But Joe and Susy had graduated from high school when their father walked out. With Alex, so much younger, it was harder.

Immersed in athletics, and gifted at them, he still would be aware that other kids had their parents at the games. With Victor gone, Lourdes was working.

"After a while, I lied to myself," Rodriguez said. "I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter, that I didn't care. But times I was alone, I often cried. Where was my father? To this day, I still can't get close to people."

Others became father figures to him. Joe Arieto, a Miami businessman and family friend who has often counseled Alex and helped him sign with Seattle; Rich Hofman, his baseball coach at Westminster Prep, where Alex excelled in front of numerous scouts every game of his senior year.

And then, on that draft day almost five years ago, there was a call from his father.

"I didn't even know where he was calling from. I didn't know what to think," Rodriguez said. "It was nice, but it didn't make much impression on me, not after all that time."

It made an impression on Lourdes, who was not pleased. "My special day, Mom thought, and my father had no right to be a part of it," the son said.

But after that contact, Rodriguez began to think his father would come back into his life. He did not know how he would react. "I kept looking for him to show up, somewhere, somehow," he said. "I wondered what it would be like, what he would look like, what he would say . . . what I would say."

Rodriguez has refused to let his struggle keep him from achieving things dear to him, beyond baseball. He returned to school, taking junior-college classes.

He wants to teach, following the guidance of his mother and sister. He actively participates in his Grand Slam for Kids education program in Seattle schools and has helped write a short book for teens, "Hit a Grand Slam With Alex," that emphasizes the positive attitude that drives him, on and off the field.

"I want to help kids, I want to impress on them the importance of education," he said. "I want to have a long and successful baseball career. But when it's done, I want to have another career, teaching civics and coaching basketball."

Knowing his attitude, friends told him this winter about a gifted athlete at a Miami high school who was not reaching his potential in class. "This kid, Javier, was acting like a jerk, a real knucklehead in classes," Rodriguez said. "I met him. I told him he was screwing up and blowing his chance. I promised him one of my bats if he made the honor roll."

Last term, Javier made the honor roll. His next step is high honors, his next reward a Ken Griffey Jr.-model bat, although Griffey might not know it yet.

"Athletics can be a big part of kids' lives, but they shouldn't be the biggest," Rodriguez said. "Education comes first. With an education, all things are possible to all kids."

Except making it possible for Rodriguez to get close again with his father. "The hurt is still there; too much there," he said.

So much so that last week, while reading proof sheets of his 60-page book, he broke down and cried at passages where he talked of his father.

Having called on draft day, Victor did not show up that baseball season. Or the next.

One day in December 1994, however, while his son prepared for a winter baseball game in the Dominican Republic, he arrived.

"I was taking batting practice," Rodriguez said. "He just bought a ticket and came to the stadium. When this man told me who he was, I almost broke down."

They made arrangements to meet for lunch the next day.

Rodriguez did not go.

"This was my father, yes," he said. "But this was the man who had walked away from my mom, who had spent her life working to give us all she could. He had walked away from my brother and my sister, and from me. He had been so good to me before, such a good dad to me, but he walked.

"I couldn't just go and see him, just like that."

Rodriguez knows where he can reach his father. But he hasn't reached out to him.

"Maybe I'd be a better man if I reconciled with him," he said. "At this point, I still don't know. The pain . . ."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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