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THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS

The 10-year-old girl waited in line two hours for the most gifted man in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, to sign the children's book he had just written. When at last she got his autograph, my daughter hurried home and read every word - taking the lessons to heart.

It was called, Hit a Grand Slam! For a man now so reviled in many parts of the baseball world, his life story was sympathetic and sad, Dickensian with a Latin twist. A-Rod talked about throwing up on the school bus, getting dumped by the first girl he fell for and the father who walked out on them.

"Dad's coming back, you'll see," he said to his sister, but Dad never came back. "I still can't understand how a parent could abandon a family."

By book's end, he is rich beyond measure, the best young player in the game, and has a best friend for life, Derek Jeter. But A-Rod tells children that life is not about money or fame.

"It's not all about the Benjamins," he sums up. It's about friendship, character, playing honorably. "If an injury suddenly ends my career tomorrow, I want people to like me for what I have inside."

My daughter still has her A-Rod poster up in the now-empty bedroom, dating to his days as a Seattle Mariner. But nearly 10 years later, we are having trouble fitting A-Rod into the dissonant home we keep in our hearts for star athletes.

Today is baseball's All-Star Game, and the leading vote-getter from fans was Rodriguez, the Yankees' third baseman. He's having a year for the ages, leading baseball in homers and runs batted in.

But A-Rod's character has never looked more haunted. Everyone knows politicians are scum and film stars are ditzy. As for athletes, well, children, in any case, still expect something more.

And as much as A-Rod now begs for his privacy, it's his fault that we got involved with him. He invited us, and our kids, to like him for what he has inside. He asked us to look at him as a man, not a hitting machine.

At least Barry Bonds said people should not hold him up as a role model. Give him credit for that. But his advice is too late for all the 15-year-olds buying vitamin "supplements" to get ripped like Barry, the human asterisk.

In less than a decade, Rodriguez has gone from A-Rod, to Pay-Rod, to A-Fraud, to Stray-Rod. Each dimension downward came with a story, a character twist, that may outlive the numbers.

As the Mariner who made the major leagues before his 19th birthday, he looked as if he had been created by Michelangelo. Coaching Little League, I told my kids to watch him move, to emulate his sweet swing, and to listen to what he said off the field.

It began to unravel when Pay-Rod emerged. He signed the richest contract in baseball, and left Seattle for - arrgghhh! - Texas. Turned out, it was about the Benjamins.

With the Yankees, all it took were a couple of bush league plays - swatting a ball out of a pitcher's mitt at first base, yelling at opposing infielders under a fly ball - for A-Fraud to surface.

But more troubling was the breakdown of his friendship with Jeter, the Yankees' shortstop and designated Good Guy, and the strange episode with the stripper, captured in the tabloid headline, "Stray-Rod." He's married, of course, and is a father as well.

In that children's book, he said having a friend like Jeter, was "more valuable than gold." An athlete can survive crass acts. Ted Williams spit on Red Sox fans, several times, but more people remember that he left the game to serve as a fighter pilot.

I'll leave it to A-Rod's therapist, whom he credits with helping him immensely, to sort his demons. But please - no more children's books, no more invitations to share the soul-ride.

Athletes build their legends for marketing purposes; it comes with collateral damage, on both sides.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for the New York Times and the author of The Worst Hard Time, is a guest columnist.

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