HOUSTON -- It's seven hours before New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will play in this year's all-star baseball game. "A-Rod" is dutifully sitting through a series of media interviews.
Rodriguez is the highest paid player in baseball history. His 10-year contract is worth $252 million. But most of the conversations with reporters aren't about his sport.
Instead, the 29-year-old Rodriguez is talking about his plan to open a Mercedes-Benz dealership in the Houston suburb of League City, Texas -- a location chosen by the automaker. His name is the latest on a long list of professional athletes who have sought to parlay their fame on the field into success in the showroom.
A superstar's name can draw shoppers into a dealership. But some of Rodriguez's predecessors have failed. Experienced dealers warn - and Rodriguez concedes - that only good customer service and hands-on attention will keep customers coming.
"We're most concerned about being the best car dealership that we can be, providing great service,"
Rodriguez says. "Sometimes you gotta think life after baseball. Most athletes retire at 38, 40 years old. I've always had a dream to be in the car business for the next 30 years after baseball."
Alex Rodriguez Mercedes-Benz is scheduled to open in the first half of 2005. Rodriguez insists he will be actively involved in its management. He says he will pattern himself after home-run king Hank Aaron, whom he calls his role model in business as well as baseball.
Hank Aaron, former Atlanta Braves outfielder
Owner, Hank Aaron BMW, Hank Aaron Mini, Hank Aaron Honda, Hank Aaron Toyota and, in September, Hank Aaron Jaguar and Hank Aaron Land Rover. All dealership are in the Atlanta area.
Aaron's dealerships had revenues of $76.7 million last year. That led Black Enterprise magazine to name Aaron its 2004 auto dealer of the year.
Aaron, 70, opened his first dealership, Hank Aaron BMW, five years ago. He says he has worked there full-time ever since.
Some customers "come here, seeing my name here, and they say: 'Well, I didn't know you were here. I just thought somebody was using your name,' " Aaron says.
Aaron says Rodriguez has not contacted him about the car business. But he offers some advice anyway: "You've got to put in some time with it. If you don't, it's not going to work."
Aaron retired from playing baseball in the mid-1970s. But Rodriguez could play for another decade or more. So Rodriguez has hired a partner to help him build, manage and staff his dealership. Jerry Glauser has 35 years of dealership experience, including 25 years with Mercedes-Benz. He owns Glauser Mercedes in Westminster, Colo.
When Rodriguez first expressed interest in becoming a dealer, Glauser says he was shocked. "It took me a while to make sure that he really wanted to" run a dealership, Glauser says. "When I felt that he really wanted to, that's when I helped him."
Rodriguez will have an office at the dealership, but says he can't predict how much time he will spend there.
Glauser, who will have a minority ownership, will oversee day-to-day operations and keep Rodriguez informed.
"I want to be as hands-on as I possibly can," Rodriguez says. "Everything that goes on in the dealership, I want to have memos every day, even when I'm playing. My presence is going to be felt in that dealership."
Curt Warner, former Seattle Seahawks running back
Owner, Curt Warner Chevrolet, Vancouver, Wash.
The Rodriguez dealership will be the fifth Mercedes store in the Houston area. It will cost about $5 million, according to Autobuilders General Contracting Services Inc. of West Palm Beach, Fla., which is handling the project.
Brett Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Advertising Engineers, says Rod-riguez's name will help his dealership stand out. Stevenson's agency works with a Chevrolet store in Vancouver, Wash., owned by former Seattle Seahawks running back Curt Warner.
"People like to buy cars from people they know and trust, and that's the basis for celebrity endorsements," Stevenson says. "You can't spend enough money in a short time to get the kind of name recognition that (Rodriguez) will get just by using his celebrity."
Keena Turner, above, and Ronnie Lott, former San Francisco '49ers
Co-owners, Tracy Toyota, Tracy, Calif.
Jacoby, who works full time at his dealership, says invoking his sports affiliation is a small part of what he does to attract customers. He has used sports themes for promotions, and he instructs salespeople to give away autographed photos, footballs and hats. But none of his marketing literature shows Jacoby in his Redskins uniform.
"The NFL has a little problem with that" unless he were to pay the league a fee, Jacoby says.
Rodriguez plans to appear in TV, radio and newspaper advertising for his dealership. Like Jacoby, Rod-riguez won't be in uniform. "We'll stay away from the Yankees stuff," Rodriguez says.
Glauser concedes that Rodriguez's superstar status alone will not sell cars. "His reputation has to be as high as everybody else's, probably higher," Glauser says.
Joe Jacoby, former Washington Redskin tackle
Owner, Jacoby Chrysler Jeep, Warrenton, Va.
But athletes who owned dealerships have not always found long-term success. Former Detroit Lions halfback Mel Farr acquired his first dealership in suburban Detroit in 1975, two years after his NFL career ended. In 1998, Black Enterprise called Mel Farr Automotive Group the nation's largest black-owned company. Its annual revenue peaked at $568.4 million.
But last year Farr sold his last two new-car franchises. Court records showed he defaulted on a $36.5 million bond package funded by Wall Street investors in 2000. Farr did not return several telephone calls.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer also found adversity as a dealer. This summer, Dilfer sold Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealerships in Delano and Porterville, Calif. Dilfer was not available for comment.
The buyer of the Porterville dealership, Mark Sidley, said the store was "underperforming" under Dilfer's ownership.
"He was an absentee owner," Sidley says of Dilfer. "In order to run a dealership, you pretty much either have to have the right people or be at the dealership hands-on."
Rodriguez says he is confident his relationship with veteran dealer Glauser and his focus on customer service will spell success.
"I do hope to sell a lot of my cars to all my friends, not only in baseball, basketball and football," Rodriguez says. "I think that's the line that Jerry's been very successful at, and we hope to continue that."