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Rodriguez hones his mental edge

By Larry Stone

Seattle Times staff reporter

Alex Rodriguez has latched onto a quote he read from Pat Riley, coach of his beloved hometown Miami Heat:

Hard work doesn't guarantee success, but without it you don't have a chance.

That, he says, neatly sums up his approach to a nearly impossible task: following up one of the epic seasons by a shortstop in baseball history.

"I've never worked harder than I did this offseason," Rodriguez said. "As a player, you can receive compliments from a lot of different people, but the minute you start patting yourself on the back, you'll be humbled on your knees."

Rodriguez hardly has been humbled, but he's also not completely satisfied with the way he has come out of the gate. Heading into the Mariners' game today against the White Sox in Chicago, the defending American League batting champion was hitting .321 with five homers and 21 runs batted in.

"I'm a little disappointed with the way I've started this year, and it has nothing to do with the average," Rodriguez said. "I'd like to do a lot more than what I'm doing. I've made some silly errors. Tough errors, actually. I could hit better with men in scoring position.

"You'll never hear me say I'm satisfied or I can't do more. There's a lot more I could do."

Rodriguez's numbers project to 27 homers, 113 RBI, 135 runs and 54 doubles, not hopelessly far off last season, when he finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting with a .358 average, 36 homers, 123 RBI, 141 runs and 54 doubles.

"Certain expectations are put upon me because of the year I had last year," he said, "but no one's expectations could be higher than myself. I never prepare myself for anything but success. Then again, people have to understand, you may hit .330, .325, and it may be a better year than hitting .358 because of what you have to overcome."

Trying to duplicate last year, he said, is not a realistic approach.

"Hall of Famers may not be able to duplicate what I did last year," he said.

It was at precisely this time last year that Rodriguez took off. After hitting .293 with three homers and 15 RBI in April, Rodriguez exploded to a .393 average in May and never slowed down. "I'm way ahead of where I was last year," he said. "I'm going to be all right."

Teammates and coaches marvel at how Rodriguez, 21, has been able to cope with the demands of his new superstardom.

"What amazes me is how much he's given of himself to outside activities and yet still maintained his work ethic," Mariner hitting coach Lee Elia said. "It's not easy. To me, the guy has to learn to say no. There's not much time to put your brain down and rest mentally."

The mental aspect of the game is where Rodriguez excels, according to his locker neighbor, John Marzano.

"After a guy has a year like that, the tendency is to try to duplicate it and put too much pressure on yourself," Marzano said. "He's the exact opposite. Alex is a very impressive individual. He's one of the strongest guys, mentally, I've seen."

Rodriguez believes strongly enough in his mental preparation that he dismisses the notion of a sophomore jinx. For one thing, having played in 48 games in 1995, he considers himself a junior.

"They always talk about the sophomore jinx, and say you can't do this or that. I don't believe in any jinx," he said. "I take a lot of pride in how I come out mentally every day ready to play. Everyone asks me what my goals are for this year. My goals are day-to-day goals. Today, I have a goal; tomorrow, I'll have a different goal."

Rodriguez credits his mother, Lourdes Navarro, with keeping him from lapsing into self-satisfaction, calling her "my biggest critic." She'll often call Alex from Miami with batting tips or if she detects on the television he's pressing too much.

American League pitchers also are doing their part to hone Rodriguez's mental edge by approaching him with the care and precision befitting a batting champion. Not that it's anything new.

"After May of last year, they've been pitching me extremely tough," he said. "I think they've always pitched me hard. That's why it was such a misconception to say, `Junior (Ken Griffey Jr.) hits behind Alex, that's why he hits so well.'

"In this league all you have to do is get two hits one day and everyone is going to be on top of you on films, on scouting reports. In this league, no one jumps out and hits .358 because someone's hitting behind me. They're pitching carefully to me, but that's exactly how they pitched me last year."

It's enough to make Rodriguez work even harder.

Rodriguez finally finds a place to relax

by Bob Finnigan - Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. - One look and it is obvious which player is happiest to be in the Seattle Mariner training camp. The man exuding maximum delight and the heartthrob smile is Alex Rodriguez. Twenty quick miles after landing at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, he is in the clubhouse and getting dressed to work out, even as everyone else is coming in from the day's practice.

"I couldn't wait. I came straight out here," Rodriguez said yesterday. "I only stopped for a sub sandwich. I was starving from the plane ride." As his teammates come in, major-leaguers and roster prospects with whom he played in the minors for varying periods - all brief - on his rocket rise through the organization, there are smiles all around. "I don't know anyone who doesn't like Alex," said Raul Ibanez, a 1994 teammate at Appleton, Wis., for two months. "You knew he was a No. 1 pick and got a nice contract and would go to the majors quick. But he was good with everyone, just one of the guys on the club."

Catchers Dan Wilson and John Marzano get hugs and back slaps. There are many handshakes. "Alex . . ." Marzano said in mock disgust, ". . . always running for mayor." Norm Rice is probably lucky Rodriguez hasn't.

Then again, Rodriguez hasn't had time for it. "I call him in Miami one day," Marzano said. "They tell me Alex is in Japan. I call back a week later, he's out making six commercials. The guy was never home." Marzano's needle is a bull's eye. Far from a winter of discontent, it was a winter of this continent, then that, for the young Seattle shortstop, whose big 1996 season drew big demands for his attention.

"This is the first time, the first place, I've felt at peace in months," Rodriguez said. "We must have turned down 80 to 85 percent of the requests, and I was constantly on the move. My respect for J.R. (as Alex calls Ken Griffey Jr.) - I see what his life is almost always like and I didn't like it. No wonder he shut it down this offseason." Rodriguez allowed that Griffey had warned him that his life would not be his own unless he were firm. He did mostly charity events and promotions, such as filming a commercial for the United Way. He also appeared at the ESPY Awards banquet for ESPN.

"I was in New York more than I was in Seattle," he said. "I was in Japan for 11 days, and that was long; that was a long way away, too. I was in Jamaica for a week. Those were the longest periods I was in one place at a time. I was hardly home."

Griffey walked in at that moment. Like Rodriguez, he is in uniform two days before he has to be. The two shook hands and Rodriguez smiled and shook his head. "I told you," Griffey said. "I told you what it would be like." "I was just saying that," Rodriguez said. "This winter was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. I feel good, but I don't feel rested. Next year it will be different."

Griffey said his winter was different, too. He stayed close to Orlando, where his new house is nearing completion. He was in Seattle once, in California for one celebrity golf event and in Jamaica with Rodriguez at the annual get-together for Nike-endorsed athletes.

"My appointments were mostly calling over to the country club to double-check on my tee times," Griffey said, a fake phone pantomimed to his ear. "Hello? Noon? Fine. I may catch a little more sleep. Thank you."

Everyone laughed, Rodriguez among them. "My golf game was ruined," he said. "Something had to go. I had to keep up with my workouts, keep all the commitments we made. I just about gave up golf."

Marzano asked if Rodriguez wanted to join him working out in the weight room. Rodriguez agreed, but asked a favor: "Play catch with me for five minutes first." Marzano frowned. He had just come in from three hours on the practice field. "I don't know, Alex," Marzano said, feigning reluctance. "All the things I do for you. . . . I mean, I go on the Mariner caravan around the Northwest this winter and I wind up answering all these questions about you. We try to talk baseball, and all the girls want to know is, `What's Alex really like?' "

Rodriguez smiled, whipped a Titleist cap onto his head, put his baseball mitt on his left hand and headed, at a canter, for the door. He is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, but apparently can't be happier than to be going out to play some ball. "A chance to relax, at last," he said, tossing back one more smile. "I've learned so much, I guess I've got to learn how to say no."

Interview by Bob Finnigan and Larry Stone / Seattle Times

First memory of baseball: When I was 6, in the Dominican Republic, my friends and I would start playing baseball every day when school got out. I remember crying when it got dark and we couldn't play anymore.

My guides in life: My mom, sister and brother are the trinity of my inspiration. Mom taught me determination to succeed, working two jobs. Susy taught me discipline. She's the tough one of us, a lawyer; and if I got a C in school, she made me stay in my room studying. Joe taught me how to compete as hard as I could. He never let me beat him until I got to be as big as him at age 13.

My ideal woman: When I was younger, I thought looks, looks, looks. I know now that sincerity and intelligence and depth are important qualities. When it comes to finding a partner for life, maybe it always comes down to someone who reminds you of mom.

If I were commissioner for a day: I'd require earlier game times during school days.

Biggest baseball thrill: Winning the (AL West) championship in 1995 -- scoring the tying run and jumping on Junior when he scored the winning run.

Favorite e-mail partner: Jose Cruz Jr.

Advice to kids: Every now and then, turn off the Game Boys and the computers, get outside and play and be active, in sports or whatever you like.

More on Alex Rodriguez

Birthdate: July 27, 1975.

Age: 21.

Height: 6-3.

Weight: 195.

Family: Lives in Miami.

SHORTSTOP IS THE COMPLETE PACKAGE AT 21. ... Named Sporting News player of the year, he had a historic 1996 in his first full season. ... Ranked among American League leaders in 11 offensive categories. ... Set five major-league records for a shortstop, and six Mariner records. ... His .358 batting average was the third highest by a shortstop in history. ... Drafted No. 1 overall by Seattle in 1993. ... Created Grand Slam For Kids educational program.

Alex Rodriguez

Daily Diary - The Sporting NewsSeptember 15, 1997

Imagine being 22 years old and coming off a season regarded by many as the best ever for a shortstop. That's what Alex Rodriguez faced coming into the 1997 season. Although he hasn't matched the remarkable numbers from a year ago -- when he batted a league-leading .358, with 36 homers and 123 RBIs -- Rodriguez has had a solid season for the Mariners. He talks with TSN correspondent Jim Street about his season. Under the conditions I've been through this year, with the rib injury in June and another one this month, I think it has been a very good year. It has been a solid year, and I feel I'm a better player. I know the game better and do the little things that don't show up in a box score, things like moving the runner over when there is less than two outs, letting the game come to me instead of forcing things the way I did last year. I play hard every day, and, no matter what happens, if I play hard, that's the biggest compliment anyone can get. Everything went my way last year. I was in a zone and never came out of it. This year has been more challenging, but it has been a lot of fun because we have a better team and are winning more. When I sit on my couch and look back at this year, hopefully with a championship ring on my finger, it will be a lot more rewarding than looking back at last year. It has been an up-and-down season, but, all in all, I am more proud of the way I have handled myself. I hurt my ribs in June and couldn't do anything for two weeks. I mean nothing. I couldn't lift a bat, run and at times barely could breathe. But I wanted to play, and I came back two weeks earlier than expected. That might have been a mistake. I wasn't able to throw the ball the way I should or swing the bat even 70 percent. Compared to the way I have been swinging the bat, it was a joke when I came back. I was playing hurt, but I wanted to play. Whether or not I was producing, I felt my presence in the lineup helped the team. When I went on the DL last year, I was able to hit off the tee every day, taking about 100 swings. So when I came back, I felt even better than when I went out because I was fresh. This time, I couldn't do anything. I didn't touch a bat for about a week, and when I did come back -- cold turkey -- I couldn't drive the ball past the infielders and made some bad throws, including one in Boston that would have been the final out of the game. I actually learned a lot from that play. I didn't make a good throw because I had gotten into the habit of flipping the ball, and what I learned, basically, was to set up and throw. If that had happened to me last year, I would have been shaken. But it made me more determined to make the next play. I wanted the next ball hit to me. My numbers might not be as good, but you take a month away from anybody, and their numbers drop. I never expected to duplicate what I did last season. That wasn't my goal. I wanted to bat at least .300, hit between 20 and 30 home runs, drive in 100 runs. I'll come close to some and probably steal more than 30 bases. That part of my game has improved. I have overexceeded my errors (24), though. If you take away the 14-game window when I was hurt and made 13 errors -- most of them throwing errors --it doesn't look so bad. I kept bouncing throws but kept working my butt off. There has been a lot more pressure on me this year, and I believe I have responded well. The best years of your career is supposed to be your fifth or sixth year. I haven't reached my potential.

Friday, Aug. 22, 1997

Alex Rodriguez comes up short only by '96 standard

By: Blaine Newnham , Times staff columnist

Alex Rodriguez sat in front of his locker opening mail. He was tired. Tired from last week's road trip with two doubleheaders, tired from a stretch heading into last night's game in which he got only 11 hits in 65 at-bats.

This wasn't 1996 anymore.

"Last year," he said, "everything I did was right."

Last year was so good it is hard to remember how good. At 21, he became the third-youngest player to win an American League batting championship.

Older only than Ty Cobb and Al Kaline.

He led the league in five categories, his batting average of .358 the highest by a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio.

Last night, batting No. 5 in the lineup in the wake of the trade for Roberto Kelly, Rodriguez slugged a second-inning home run.

The night before, with Rich Amaral on second base, he had hit the ball similarly hard, only to have a drive to center run down by Marquis Grissom and a line drive behind Amaral snared by Tony Fernandez.

"Can't hit the ball any harder than those," he said. "If I try any harder, I'll just foul things up."

Last year the balls would have found their niche in history, not the opponent's glove. Rodriguez wouldn't have thrown his bat all the way to the backstop in disgust.

Indeed, on this day a year ago, he became the fifth-youngest player to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs in a season. He was en route to 36 homers and 128 RBI and overwhelming selection by The Sporting News as major-league player of the year.

He would lose the league MVP voting to Texas' Juan Gonzalez by three points.

The notion that there would be other seasons in which he could win the MVP was, well, naive. No shortstop might ever have the season Rodriguez had last year. It should have been appropriately recognized.

One man's wonderful season casts an interesting light on this one, in which Rodriguez is hitting .295 with 19 home runs and 66 RBI.

Last season was both aberration and celebration. This year is reality.

"I'm having a solid season," he said. "I think I'm a better player than I was last season."

Rodriguez ranks among the American League leaders in four categories, including stolen bases, of which he has claimed 22 of the 26 he's gone after.

He is third in doubles, 10th in total bases, eighth in extra-base hits and seventh in stolen bases.

Last year the comparisons were with Cobb and DiMaggio. This year they need be with his shortstop contemporaries, Derek Jeter of the Yankees, Omar Vizquel of the Indians, and Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox.

Rodriguez bests Vizquel, for example, in every category but stolen bases and errors. He has nine times as many home runs and almost twice as many RBI. Garciaparra, on the other hand, leads the league in runs, hits and triples and is third in extra- base hits.

"I said last year when I was hit ting .375 that you shouldn't measure a player by one season," Rodriguez said. "Look at me after 15 years, and then make your judgment.

"I'm 22 years old. I see myself just getting better. I've improved my baserunning, and I've increased my range defensively."

Rodriguez acknowledges he caught the league by surprise last season.

"For many pitchers I was just someone to get out before they had to face Ken Griffey Jr.," he said. "This year they are pitching me with a lot more respect. They're more cautious about falling into patterns with me.

"There's no doubt that it is tougher this year."

Rodriguez has played with various injuries. A collision with Roger Clemens bruised his chest and cost him 14 games.

The theory behind batting him fifth is that once on base he'll be a base-stealing threat that will keep pitchers from throwing Jay Buhner nothing but off-speed pitches.

Rodriguez has such amazing versatility; he is able to bat just about anywhere in the lineup, delivering power and average to go with range in the field. His plays behind second base in the eighth and ninth innings to throw out Fernandez and Jeff Branson last night contributed as much to the victory as anything.

For a 22-year-old shortstop, his season is outstanding by any standard other than the one set last season by a 21-year-old shortstop.