Rodriguez a standout long before his 600 home runs

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Long before the 600 home runs, the dates with celebrities and the $250 million contracts, Alex Rodriguez was already a standout among baseball talent evaluators.

When he was a teenager playing for Miami Westminster Christian High School in the early 1990s, they knew he was destined for greatness. One scout who took him to eat said he always ordered grilled chicken and vegetables while many young prospects were hooked on junk food.

By age 17 Rodriguez had already been the subject of a splashy feature in Sports Illustrated magazine, interviewed by ESPN television and followed by as many as 60 professional scouts who would attend his games, marveling at his rare combination of athleticism and baseball skills.

Rodriguez, the New York Yankees slugger known as A-Rod, fulfilled some more of that potential on Wednesday when he hit his 600th career home run against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium, becoming the youngest player to reach that milestone, at age 35.

Rodriguez is powerfully built at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds (1.91 meters, 104 kg) but nimble enough to play shortstop -- a position long suited for smaller, light-hitting defensive specialists. He switched to the less demanding position of third base when he joined the Yankees in 2004 only because shortstop was held by team captain Derek Jeter.

"He's got an ideal combination of strength, bat speed, plate discipline and just overall athleticism that has allowed him to remain productive even as he's passed into a period where a lot of hitters would start to show a more pronounced decline," said Keith Law, a baseball analyst for ESPN.

Rodriguez has attracted as much attention for his life off the field, including his personal relationships with pop star Madonna and actresses Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz.

His admission before the 2009 season that he used performance-enhancing drugs while playing with the Texas Rangers fueled more negative publicity. Opposing fans boo him lustily when he plays on the road.

There was a time when the focus was purely on sport.

The Seattle Mariners held the first pick in the 1993 amateur draft, and they drafted and signed Rodriguez.

In his first full season in the big leagues at age 20, Rodriguez hit 36 home runs and led the American League in batting average (.358) and total bases (379).

He would become the most coveted free agent ever at age 25 and left Seattle for a record 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, for whom he led the league in home runs three years in a row.

After being traded to the Yankees in 2004, he opted out of the contract in 2007, three years before it was to expire, and became a free agent once again. He signed a new 10-year, $275 million deal with Yankees.

He could earn a further $30 million by passing several milestones such as the home-run records of Willie Mays (660), Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (762).

Law and Jongewaard both expect he will break Bonds' record, and not because of the financial incentive.

"If it wasn't for the (doping) stuff and the fact that a lot of the media just don't seem to like him personally, he'd really be revered a lot more," Law said.

"We're privileged to watch this guy and for some reason the media have just run him down for the last 10 years. I've never understood it because I like watching him play."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)