Breakthrough To Stardom
In 1996, his first full year, Rodriguez put together an incredible season, becoming the youngest player since Detroit's Al Kaline in 1955 to win a batting championship. He hit .356, the highest batting average by a right-handed batter in the major leagues in 57 years, and scored 141 runs, with 23 home runs and 54 doubles, a new single-season record for two baggers by a shortstop. On August 29, he had five hits in a game. His 379 total bases for the season tied the all-time record for shortshops set by Ernie Banks. Rodriguez won the Silver Slugger Award as the best-hitting shortstop in the league, an honor he would get almost annually thereafter. Because of his earlier stints in the two previous seasons, Rodriguez was not eligible for the American League Rookie of the Year award, which went to the New York Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter. He also narrrowly lost the Most Valuable Player Award to Juan Gonzalez of Texas but was named Major League Player of the Year by the Sporting News.
Baseball pundits proclaimed that Rodriguez's ceiling was unlimited, and magazines gushed over his posterboy good looks. Well-mannered, well-read, and quiet, he still made his home with his mother, and made it clear that his goal was to treat people with respect, like his idol Ripken. In the off-season, Rodriguez took classes in writing and political science at Miami-Dade Community College. He also played golf regularly.
The following year Rodriguez—who had acquired the nickname "A-Rod" to distinguish him from other players with the same last name, such as Texas's Ivan Rodriguez—experienced a "sophomore slump." But a subpar year for Rodriguez would be considered a career year for most players: he hit .300 with 23 homers and 84 runs batted in. On June 5 he became the first player in Seattle Mariners history to hit for the cycle in a nine-inning game.
In 1998, "A-Rod" became the third player in major league history up to that point to hit at least 40 home runs and steal at least 40 bases in a season, with 42 home runs and 46 steals to go with a .310 batting average and 124 runs batted in. He set an American League single-season record for home runs by a shortstop, and he became the fourth-youngest player in history to hit 100 career home runs. In April, he equaled the American League record of eight extra base hits in three consecutive games. On August 18, he had another five-hit game.
During spring training in 1999, Rodriguez tore cartilage in his knee doing an agility exercise. He underwent knee surgery and missed the first month of the regular season, yet he still managed to equal his previous high of 42 home runs and also drove in 111 runs. In August he homered in five consecutive games. However, the knee injury and a subsequent second knee injury slowed down Rodriguez on the bases, and his stolen base totals declined dramatically from 46 in 1998 to only nine in 2002.
Griffey, threatening to leave Seattle as a free agent, was traded to Cincinnati over the off-season, and in 2000 opposing pitchers refused to give Rodriguez much to hit. For the first time in his career Rodriguez had 100 walks, but he still managed 41 home runs and 132 RBI. On Sept. 30, Rodriguez had five hits, including two home runs, and drove in seven runs.