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Amazing A-Rod

by: Pete Williams, Baseball Weekly

MIAMI-The teacher had invited the student to his home in the Baltimore suburbs to show him a few things. For two days during the week before Christmas, the younger man had dutifully listened to the master talk about life, family and the pursuit of excellence.

Now, dripping sweat on the basketball court in his personal gymnasium, Cal Ripken, Jr. had his 21-year-old pupil right where he wanted. Ripken needed just one bucket to win the game of one-on-one and as he checked the ball to Alex Rodriguez, he issued a warning: “Don’t let the old man take you to the hole.”

Rodriguez returned the ball and crouched into defensive position. Then the old man faked left and stuck an 18-foot jumper in his face. Ballgame.

Rodriguez is recounting this story in an office at Westminster Christian High, his alma mater in south Miami. But before Rodriguez allows a reporter to relay the tale for publication, he makes a quick call to Ripken’s representatives, who assure him that Mr. Ripken will have no objection.

The story illustrates just why the ever-courteous Rodriguez might be the best thing to happen to baseball at a time when the game is in desperate need of image repair. In a year dominated by names such as Alomar, Belle, Reinsdorf and Schott, the soft-spoken AL batting champ with the catalog-model looks and impeccable manners was a most welcome breath of fresh air-and a cinch for Baseball Weekly’s sixth annual list of the nine people/events with the most impact on the game.

Like Ripken, Rodriguez is an increasingly rare commodity in baseball: a squeaky clean personality who works tirelessly to improve on the field while embracing the responsibility of serving as a role model. He is a multimillionaire who still lives in his mother’s house and gives all of the credit for his success in baseball to his high school coach. He approaches his relationships as a polite fan of the game, treating his Seattle Mariners teammates like wise elders and picking the brains of opponents for hours. He not only signs autographs at length, he thanks the hounds when he’s done.

“We have a responsibility not just as athletes but as members of society to treat people well, to do things the right way,” Rodriguez says during a break from planning a baseball clinic to benefit the school. “Whether we like it or not, we have a lot of kids looking at us for guidance, for help. I know because this is how I was three years ago. This is not to say we won’t make mistakes, because we will. But we have a responsibility, I think, to be the best people we can.”

Four years ago, Rodriguez was a high school senior weighing an immediate professional career against a scholarship offer from the University of Miami. Now, after a jaw-dropping season that somehow did not earn him an American League Most Valuable Player Award, he ranks as the most exciting player of his generation.

Perhaps most impressively, in a year in which contemporaries such as golf’s Tiger Woods and basketball’s Allen Iverson grabbed headlines for their limitless potential, Rodriguez provided an immediate return. He enjoyed the best baseball season ever by a 21-year-old and perhaps the most prolific season by a shortstop of any age. Even Ripken, who in 16 big league seasons has set the modern standard for power hitting shortstops, has never equaled Rodriguez’s ’96 numbers in batting (.358), home runs (36) and RBI (123).

“It’s obvious to everyone that he’s a special player,” Ripken said earlier this year. “The thing that impresses me most is maturity on the field. He’s doing it like he has been in the league four or five years.”

Ripken should be flattered. Rodriguez has imitated the Baltimore Orioles star long before they began playing hoops together. As a kid, Rodriguez placed a Ripken poster above his bed and began his day with the type of routine-100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups-that only the Iron Horse could appreciate. He even imitated Ripken’s quick flip-toss across the diamond.

Even now, Rodriguez maintains an almost fawning respect for Ripken. Last year, he received a new poster of Ripken, a lithograph painting. His mother, Lourdes Navarro, remarked that the rendering was not a particularly good resemblance. The son responded as if she had dissed the Mona Lisa. “Mom, how can you say that? This is Cal Ripken.”

The basketball game grew out of marathon conversations the two had as teammates on the major league all-star trip to Japan in November. During the offseason, Ripken invites groups of ex-college players, pickup legends and an occasional baseball player to his home for heated, full-court scrimmages. It speaks volumes about the relationship that has quickly developed that Rodriguez was the first non-Oriole to play in the Ripken gym.

“He idolizes the guy, always has,” said J.D. Arteaga, a close friend of Rodriguez’s who now pitches for the University of Miami. “The funny thing is that he doesn’t realize who big he’s become. You see guys in this town get big heads in a hurry. Not Alex.”

The girl’s junior varsity basketball team at Westminster Christian High is, to be kind, in a rebuilding year. At halftime of a game shortly before Christmas, the Warriors are trailing Ransom Everglades 20-1.

But Ransom Everglades can’t match Westminster in the halftime entertainment department. At the buzzer, a photographer positions a ladder under one basket and Rodriguez, clad in full Mariners uniform, limbers up at midcourt.

The gym grows momentarily silent, then erupts in screams. Cheerleaders from both sides seem to multiply. There is no hope of any sort of productive halftime discussion for either team.

Rodriguez stretches and waves to familiar faces in the crowd. During the offseason, he spends many afternoons at the school, having lunch in the student cafeteria and working out. Since the school begins with kindergarten, many of the current students remember the guy whose white No. 3 jersey with the green pinstripes rests in a metal frame above the bleachers.

The high school consists of only 300 students, housed a multiple buildings connected by sidewalks line with palm trees. The official student uniform is white knit shirts and khaki shorts. On this day, a stiff breeze cools the courtyard, and it’s not difficult to imagine Hurricane Andrew rumbling through as it did in 1992.

It is the type of close-knit, religious school that displays slogans such as, “Praise God for His faithfulness through the years,” and, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve other.” Even the sports posters are captioned with mantras such as, “A Christian may be knocked down but not out,” and, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Rodriguez could not afford to attend Westminster until his sophomore year. Born in New York City, his parents moved to the Dominican Republic when he was 4. The family, which includes Alex’s older brother, Joe, and sister, Susy Silva, returned to the United States four years later, settling in Miami. Alex’s father, Victor Rodriguez, a former catcher in a Dominican pro league who introduced Alex to baseball, left the family when Alex was 10. On her own, Alex’s mother worked as a waitress and a secretary to come up with Westminster’s $6,500 annual tuition.

His friends called the tall, gangly youngster with the wry sense of humor “Cheech,” after Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong fame. But there was nothing funny about his dedication to baseball. He watched major league games for hours on television, studying the tendencies of pitchers and hitters-many of who would still be in the majors when he arrived for good in 1995.

Then there was his training. Tony Quesada, who coached a team that Rodriguez was on during a tournament in Georgia in 1989, was startled to wake up one morning at 7 a.m. and find his 13-year-old roommate doing his sit-up/push-up routine.

“When we would travel, most guys would be in the hotel pool or goofing off,” said Ralph Suarez, a friend since early childhood. “Alex would be in his room by eight watching ESPN.”

When Rodriguez enrolled at Westminster High in 1990, coach Rich Hofman figured he had found a slick-fielding shortstop with little power. But during the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Rodriguez grew to 6’3 and 190 pounds. He began to hit for distance and the inevitable comparisons to Ripken began. In 1992, Westminster won he national high school title, an award determined by the rankings of three publications, including USA TODAY. A year later, the Mariners made Rodriguez the top pick in the amateur draft.

Along the way, Hofman emerged as the father figure Rodriguez never had. Last season, Rodriguez brought his former coach to Seattle and to the All-Star Game in Philadelphia. He sends 50 pairs of shoes back to his high school each year and has plans to build an air-conditioned addition to the baseball complex to be used by VIP guests. This is in addition to the youth baseball stadium he has built with Nike in Miami. There’s also an Alex Rodriguez baseball camp and several clinics.

Not everyone is impress, however. “Get off the court already,” yells an angry middle-aged man, presumably the father of a Ransom Everglades basketball player.

Rodriguez complies, but remains in the gym for 20 minutes to sign autographs and pose for pictures. “That guy was serious, wasn’t he?” Rodriguez asks, shaking his head.

Not even Rodriguez can please everybody. Maybe if he had brought Ripken.

After two days, not a negative word has been uttered about Rodriguez. If a reporter were searching for some dirt on Mr. Clean, Hofman’s Christmas party would not be the place to find it.

Hofman is to high school baseball what John Wooden was to college hoops. Since coming to Westminster in 1969, Hofman’s teams have won 667 games, six state titles and two national championships. He has sent dozens of Division I colleges and into professional baseball. Many have gathered at his home on this evening as part of a weekend of festivities centered on his 1992 and 1996 championship teams.

Hofman and his wife, Jo, figure their ranch-style home with its sun-porch and backyard pool area ca comfortably handle 60 guests, or about half the number on hand for the party. Conspicuously absent for much of the evening is Rodriguez, who finally arrives nearly two hours late. Nattily attired in a black blazer and gray pants, with a white shirt and yellow tie, he hands Jo Hofman a bottle of champagne and spends the next half-hour greeting everyone inside the house and around the pool. It is not difficult to imagine him running for office.

“He means so much to this community,” says Gino DiMare, a 1998 graduate of Westminster who played at the University of Miami with Alex Fernandez, the Cuban American right-hander and Miami native who recently signed a multiyear deal with the Marlins. “This will always be home for him.”

Everyone, it seems, has a warm-and-fuzzy Rodriguez story. Mickey Lopez, a former teammate who is now an infielder in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system, was struggling last season at Class A Stockton when a Rodriguez phone call helped him turn his season around. Tris Moore, a minor league outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, has received shipments of bats and equipment.

Then Hofman takes the floor and asks players from different years to recount their funniest moment. There are tales of botched signals and missed buses and road trip mayhem. Finally, Hugo Bosque, a goateed ex-Rodriguez teammate whose squatty physique indicates he has not furthered his baseball career, stands up and says he has an Alex story.

Rodriguez stares at the reporter and then at Bosque, quickly shaking his head. The sterling image is on the line. Bosque smiles, then recounts a late evening during a baseball tournament in California when he and Rodriguez sneaked out of the hotel to meet two girls they had met earlier.

Even Rodriguez’s dirt is clean. The girls didn’t show. And the two ballplayers were left to spend a scandalous evening…in Disneyland.

We are watching video now. Rodriguez has two dozen kids packed into a classroom watching film footage as part of his baseball clinic.

Here is Alex going deep on David Wells. Here is Alex homering off Orel Hershiser. Here is Alex trotting around the bases as Jose Mesa kicks dirt. Now here is Alex talking to David Letterman. And here is Alex live, explaining it all.

The kids are not impressed. “Do you have a shoe yet?” one asks.

“Not until 1998.”

“How about a video game?” another asks.

“We’re talking about it.”

“Are you better than Griffey?”

“No.”

“Do you think you should have won the MVP?”

“You guys ask a lot of questions.”

It is not easy playing it straight in the Rodman generation. There are those who would like to see if Rodriguez be more outrageous. Perhaps he could don an earring, or at least show some of the swagger of his good buddy Jose Canseco.

Rodriguez will have none of it. His heroes are Ripken and former Braves slugger Dale Murphy. He is the rare athlete who understands-and cares-that his every move will be emulated by young fans.

Thus, he carefully protects his image from potential media distortion. Rodriguez never wears his hat backward, and refuses requests by photographers to turn it around. Like Ripken, he is unfailingly polite and accommodating to reporters, but asks about the angle of the story. He makes editorial suggestions and punctu ates strong feelings with a gentle pat on a reporter’s arm.

If he were a NBA star, the world would know of him now. His A-Rod nickname would be marketed like Air or Shaq. He would have shoes and cereal and cologne. Perhaps even a bad movie role.

Like every other star, he receives little marketing help from baseball’s central office. But they know him in Seattle, where he gets 500 letters a week, many from young girls seeking marriage. He receives a louder ovation at the Kingdome than Edgar Martinez or Randy Johnson or even Ken Griffey, Jr.

Everyone else will know of him soon. Rodriguez’s agent, the hard-charging Scott Boras, has been operating under the motto, “Show Me the Money,” long before Tom Cruise made it popular. Rodriguez is interviewing for a second tier of representatives who will handle his marketing. He uses another firm to help him deal with endorsement opportunities in Latin America.

He is a shrewd businessman. In 1993, Rodriguez after the Mariners made a lowball contract offer, Rodriguez threatened to enroll at Miami unless they caved in to his contract demands. At one point, Boras restricted communications to fax transmissions before a compromise was reached.

Cardmaker Topps was not as fortunate. In 1993, Rodriguez was given a tryout for Team USA’s senior squad, the team that provides many of the players to the U.S. Olympic team. Topps, the official sponsor of the team at the time, required all members to sign an individual player contract giving the company exclusive image rights without compensation.

Boras and Rodriguez, an avid collector of Tops cards as a kid, realized the potential collectible value of his first card and balked. Topps, in turn, refused to sign Rodriguez’s waiver to play for Team USA. Neither side budged. Rodriguez cried on the plane ride back Miami.

These days, Topps can picture every player in the major leagues in its card products but one. And in a business fueled by stars, the lack of Alex Rodrigue z cards undoubtedly has hurt the company. “They’ve made me an interesting offer,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t know, though. It’s a matter of principle.”

As business goes, he wants to be like Mike. There is talk of position his A-Rod moniker as a brand, like Air Jordan. “I want to align myself with two or three blue-chip companies and everything else will take care of itself,” he says. “I don’t want to be a movie guy or shoe guy. I want to be able to concentrate on baseball.”

Not everyone has gotten the message. Rodriguez lost the MVP voting to Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers by three votes. One MVP voter listed him eighth. Even the two Mariners beat writers cast their first—place votes for Griffey.

Rodriguez said before the balloting that if he had been able to vote, he too would have selected Griffey, although he would have made a convincing case for himself. Rodriguez finished among the league leaders in 11 categories, leading the league in average, runs (141), total bases (379), grand slams (3) doubles (54).

He became the third-youngest batting champion and his average was the highest by a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio batted .381 in 1939. His average was the third highest by a shortstop and only Ty Cobb and Al Kaline won batting titles at an earlier age.

Unlike Gonzalez, who carried the Rangers, Rodriguez was one of many stars in the Emerald City, albeit one whose quick development in ’96 helped make up for the loss of Johnson, the big left-hander, for most of the season.

“It hurt not to get a first-place vote from my own town after the season I had,” Rodriguez said. “To me, the MVP is not about a trophy. It’s that people around you feel that you’re the MVP.”

So he trains harder. Last winter, he gave up junk food. This offseason, he has added a 45-minute stretching routine to improve flexibility and prevent injuries like the hamstring pull that sidelined him for 13 games early last season.

“People think everything was easy for me last season, but if anything it was humbling,” he says. “You get to appreciate guys like Eddie Murray and Paul Molitor. I’ve had six good months. They’ve done it for nearly 20 years. I haven’t accomplished anything yet.”

The 1996 Westminster High baseball team has done what few major league teams could last season: hold Rodriguez hitless in four at-bats. This despite a home plate umpire who asks for the star’s autograph.

The showdown between the ’96 team and Rodriguez’s 92 lineup, including right-hander Dan Perkins, who recently was added to the Minnesota Twins’ 40-man roster.

The ’96 team, led by a trio of pitches now enrolled in Division I college programs, hold the ’92 team scoreless through the first six innings. Outfielder Mark Walker provides the only run, a home run into the school’s swimming pool-yes, swimming pool-beyond left field.

The’92 team rallies for two in the bottom of the seventh, thus ensuring Rodriguez will not have to endure the double indignity of an o-fer and an upset.

Nearly an hour later, Rodriguez is still on the field, signing autographs, posing for pictures and enduring barbs about his performance. Eventually, he boards his Range Rover and disappears into the twilight.

No one follows. Why should they?

They know he’ll be back soon.


Street & Smith's Baseball Article

By: Tom Singer

Alex Rodriguez proved that you don't have to be experienced to make a difference in people's lives. On July 27, 1996 (Rodriguez's 21st birthday), when the Mariners signed their brilliant young shortstop to a four-year contract extension, team president Chuck Armstrong called Rodriguez "the brightest young star in baseball, both on and off the field."

That season, Rodriguez established all-time highs at his position in runs, hits, doubles, extra-base hits, and slugging percentage while setting Mariner records in runs, doubles, average, hits, and total bases. His .358 mark was the highest by a right-handed hitter in 57 years, his 54 doubles led the American League, and his 36 homers were the eighth-highest ever for s shortstop. And it was only his first full season!

Last season, he "slumped" to .300 with 23 homers, 84 RBIs, 40 doubles, and 176 hits despite suffering bruised ribs in June in a collision with Toronto's Roger Clemens. Rodriguez missed two weeks, then resumed playing. "That might have been a mistake," he said. "I wasn't able to throw the ball the way I should or swing the bat even 70 percent. I was playing hurt, but I wanted to play."

He exhibits that same drive off the field. "You take every day and try to be the best person you can," he said.

That's why he donated a baseball field to the Boys & Girls Club in Miami, where he spent a lot of time growing up. In Seattle, he established an educational program called Grand Slam for Kids.

When invited to speak at Wing Luke Elementary School in Seattle last January, he told a packed gymnasium to focus on education, be responsible, and respect others. In May he treated 200 kids to a Mariner game. "He is a wonderful man," Wing Luke principal Ellen Punyon said.

And a wonderful shortstop.


Long On Shortstops

By: Tom Verducci

Measuring Derek Jeter, the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year, against Alex Rodriguez, the league's batting champion, is as unavoidable for the foreseeable future as it is on this February night inside the steamy cinder block gymnasium at the Boys Club of Miami. "Let's see what you've got," Rodriguez says to Jeter, his friend and foil. Dressed in jeans and leaning on the bleachers, Jeter is reluctant to take the court. He came here only to watch Rodriguez in one of his regular pick up basketball games, which ended abruptly in its second hour after a hard foul ignited three fistfights, none of which involved the Seattle Mariners shortstop.

Jeter cannot resist the challenge. "All right, Al," he says. The shortstop of the world champion New York Yankees grabs a ball and starts draining jump shots. Within a minute or two, Rodriguez and Jeter are battling each other in a slam-dunk version of H-O-R-S-E. The 6'3", 185-pound Jeter stands flat-footed about four feet from the basket, takes two short steps and easily power slams the basketball-blue jeans be damned. Rodriguez, 6'3" and 205 pounds, matches that move, but he gets less height on his jump than Jeter does. Rodriguez then stands at the foul line, throws the ball down so that it bounces off the floor and then the backboard, before he catches it and jams it in one vicious swoop. On his first two attempts Jeter fails to get the proper bounce. His third try is only slightly better, and he is left too far from the rim to throw the ball down. "I've got to go," Jeter says, mindful of his flight home to Tampa.

"C'mon with me to New York, DJ," Rodriguez says. He has been trying all evening to persuade Jeter to fly with him the next morning to an awards show, having failed at dinner with his A material. "Cindy's going to be there. Cindy Crawford!"

Jeter insists on leaving, but before he does, he walks to the corner of the court, placing his heels where the sideline meets the baseline. He heaves a 25-foot jumper. It goes in.

There are many nights on which Rodriguez and Jeter-playing in sold-out ultramodern ballparks around the country-demonstrate why they are state-of-the-art shortstops, possessing an unprecedented combination of size, speed, power and agility at what historically has been a little man's position. In front of about six people at the Boys Club of Miami, this, too, is one of those nights.

With Cal Ripken Jr. pushed to third base and Ozzie Smith and Alan Trammell to retirement, there remains only one active shortstop who has started an All-Star Game: Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds, and he turns 33 in April. Fear not for the most crucial position in baseball, though. The best crop of young shortstops to come along in 56 years-and the most multi-talented group ever-already is redefining the position and putting a fresh face on the game.

This week, as most players report to spring training, at least nine teams plan to start a shortstop who is either no older than 23 or has no more than one full season of major league experience. Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Batista, a pair of 23-year-olds who battered Triple A pitching last season before being promoted to the majors, are expected to replace veterans as starters for the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland A's, respectively. Benji Gil, 24, a sparkling fielder who missed virtually all of last year because of a back injury, returns as the Texas Rangers' shortstop. Mark Grudzielanek, a late bloomer who turns 27 in June, has a hold on the Montreal Expos' job after his breakout .306 season last year.

At the head of the class are five others who are already setting standards at the position: Rey Ordonez, 24, of the New York Mets, an acrobat in spikes; Edgar Renteria, 21, of the Florida Marlins, a .309 hitter last season with more range than Cecilia Bartoli; Alex Gonzalez, 23, of the Toronto Blue Jays, who hit 14 home runs and successfully handled more fielding chances per nine innings than any other regular shortstop in '96; and Rodriguez, 21, and Jeter, 22, the only shortstops who started 140 games and hit .300 or better with at least 10 home runs last season. Those two are the prototypes of the new generation of shortstops. "I'd love to make an All-Star team," Gonzalez says, "but with these two guys around, it's going to be real hard over the next 10 or 15 years."

Not since 1941 have so many young shortstops arrived with this much potential. Of the 16 regular shortstops that year, 10 were entering their first or second full season, including three future Hall of Famers: Lou Boudreau, Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto. They epitomized the classic shortstop-short, slick fielders with limited pop at the plate. The average size of the 18 shortstops in the Hall of Fame is 5'10" and 167 pounds.

From 1942 through '73 only two shortstops debuted who would have Hall of Fame careers: Luis Aparicio and Ernie Banks. No shortstop who broke in between Banks (1956) and Robin Yount ('740 is likely to make the Hall of Fame. It was a pitcher-dominated era in which defensive-oriented shortstops such as the Baltimore Orioles' Mark Belanger, a lifetime .228 hitter, carved out long careers.

"In 1966 I was one of five or six shortstops in the [Triple A] International League who were considered future stars," says Yankees scout Gene Michael, a former shortstop. "Mark Belanger, Bud Harrelson, Bobby Murcer and Gil Garrido were there, too. They called it the year of the shortstop. The only one with pop was Murcer, and he wound up in the outfield. It didn't used to matter if you could hit much."

Yount began a renaissance at the position that was carried on by Trammell (1977), Smith ('78) and the 6'4" Ripken, who in 1982 became the tallest every-day shortstop in history when he was installed there by offensive-minded Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. "Cal Ripken broke the mold," Toronto general manager Gord Ash says.

Rodriguez, who grew up in Miami with a life-sized poster of Ripken in his bedroom, represents the next level of evolution. He is Ripken with speed, not to mention more power and the ability to hit for a higher average. Try to picture Pee Wee and the Scooter staging a slam-dunk competition, and you can understand how far the position has come since 1941. Moreover, most of the top young shortstops today might not even have received the opportunity to play major league ball in '41, six years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Rodriguez's parents are Dominican. Jeter's father is black, his mother is white. Ordonez was born in Cuba, whish is also the homeland of Gonzalez's father. Renteria is one of only four players born in Colombia to have reached the majors.

In 1993, 10 shortstops were playing in their first or second full season in the majors: Mike Bordick, Andujur Cedeno, Royce Clayton, Wil Cordero, Gary DiSarcina, Ricky Gutierrez, Pat Listach, Pat Meares, Jose Offerman and John Valentin. Four years later only three remain at the position with the same club: Valentin (Boston, where he is being pressed by Garciaparra), DiSarcina (Anaheim Angels) and Meares (Minnesota Twins). "There's a big difference this time," Michael says. "That group didn't have the same kind of talent this one does."

"It's cynical," says Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick about the influx of young shortstops. "Sometimes good players at a position just come in bunches. Shortstop still places a premium on defense. We got Bordick [a free-agent pickup in December] for his defense. But more and more of these young players are turning it into an offensive position."

Rodriguez is bigger than third baseman Mike Schmidt (6'2". 195 pounds) or centerfield Willie Mays (5'11", 187) were in their prime. Rodriguez's first full season was the best ever by a shortstop. No one who has played the position had more hits (215), more extra-base hits (91), more doubles (54), more total bases (.379), more runs (141) or a better slugging percentage (.631) than he did in 1996. Rodriguez blasted 36 home runs, two less than Rizzuto hit in his career, and stole 15 bases, only seven fewer than the Scooter's single-season high. Rodriguez even committed five fewer errors (15) than Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, but was runner-up to Vizquel in the Gold Glove award voting. Imagine if Rodriguez had been healthy all year-he missed 15 days early in the season with a hamstring injury that never fully healed. "I played almost the whole year at about 85 percent," he says, "I expect to steal more bases this year."

Like Rodriguez, Jeter has transfixing green eyes, a tight fade haircut and physical attributes that send baseball scouts and teenage girls swooning. When Jeter allowed a 14-year-old girl to pose on his lap for a picture at a Yankees fan festival in January, the overwhelmed teen broke into a crying fit.

"We get mistaken for each other all the time," Rodriguez says. The two shortstops talk at least twice a week during the season and share each other's apartments whenever their teams meet. One difference; Jeter is a morning person, Rodriguez is not. One Saturday night last August when Seattle played in New York, Rodriguez told Jeter to wake him the next morning so he could be at Yankee Stadium for a 9:30 workout. Jeter, whose team had no early hitting practice that day, dutifully walked in Rodriguez's room, smacked him on the hip and said, "C'mon, boy. It's time to get your butt to the ballpark."

"Now that's a friend," Rodriguez says. "That's how much I trust him."

Says Jeter, "I'm Alex's biggest fan. I brag on him so much that my teammates are sick of me talking about him. Last year we talked all the time, especially early in the season. We both knew if we didn't get off to a good start, we might be shipped out."

Actually, Jeter almost didn't make it to Opening Day. With one week left in spring training Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, acting on the advice of his "baseball people," wondered aloud if Jeter was ready and whether the club should trade for an established shortstop. Manager Joe Torre thought it was too late to make such a move. The Yankees stayed with Jeter, who rewarded them by hitting .314, including .350 after the All-Star break. Jeter is not polished defensively-he needs to improve his range moving to his left-but his 22 errors last year represented a huge improvement over the 56 he made in Class A in 1993 and was much better than the 47 charged to Reese in '41. "He weighed 158 pounds when we signed him," Michael says of Jeter, "and he's continued to get bigger and better every year."

Gonzalez is another friend of Rodriguez's-they played high school ball in Miami and in the off-season go out together in search of sailfish-who brings sock to shortstop. The 60foot Gonzalez hit the weight room after last season and added nine pounds, bulking up to 195. "My goal this year is to double my numbers in home runs and stolen bases [16]," he says.

The 6'1" Renteria added 10 pounds over the winter and is now 185, though he sheepishly admits to 'the McDonald's diet." According to Marlins Latin American scouting director Al Avila, "Renteria is the type of guy who's going to hit .300 year-in and year-out while getting to the point where he should hit 10 to 15 home runs a year." On defense Renteria is so smooth that he makes difficult plays look routine. Only Gonzalez, Bordick and Milwaukee's Jose Valentin gobbled more balls per nine innings last year. "Back home I am like Michael Jordan is here," says Renteria, who was runner-up to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Todd Hollandsworth for Nation League Rookie of the Year. "The only games on television in Colombia are Marlins games."

The smallish Ordonez (5'9", 159 pounds), who defected from Cuba in 1993, may not be a hero in his homeland, but he's a favorite of highlight-tape editors across America's television newsrooms. His best glovework is equal to that of Ozzie Smith's. Trouble is, Ordonez also made 27 errors last year and had a lowly .289 on-base percentage. "Rey has an awful lot to learn about offensive play," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "He definitely made too many errors, but most of them came from not being aware of the situation, like the speed of the runner. If it were tennis, he'd have a lot of unforced errors."

Rodriguez, meanwhile, plays the position as if he studied his whole life for it. He is part of America's cable-ready generation, a satellite-fired society bombarded with games. Since he was 11 years old, Rodriguez has watched hundreds of baseball games with a critical eye, absorbing tendencies and habits of players. "When I got to the big leagues," he says, "no one had to tell me that Cal Ripken was a pull hitter or what Darryl Strawberry did with two strikes. My knowledge shortened the learning curve for me, big time."

The next great baseball hero is so young that he cannot remember Ripken playing in the 1983 World Series. "The first one I clearly remember is '84: Tigers-Padres," Rodriguez says. He is so young that only recently did he move out of his mom's house. "I had to," he says. "I didn't fit in my bedroom anymore. I had clothes hanging out of closets and stuff hanging out of windows."

It is past midnight, and Rodriguez, still clad in his basketball clothes, is sitting in the backyard of his new Miami home, an abundance of stars above him. It is a rare moment of repose. In his last week before spring training, Rodriguez will attend three awards dinners (none, alas, at which he will meet Cindy); chat up the folks at GQ about a photo spread and a Manhattan advertising firm about a milk ad campaign; do two photo shoots for national magazines and visit Ripken at his house in Maryland.

Rodriguez 's home is not yet fully furnished, but displayed prominently in the foyer is a basketball autographed by another of his heroes, Magic Johnson, who redefined point guard the way Rodriguez is revolutionizing shortstop. Rodriguez grew up watching Magic and the other great basketball stars-Jordan, Bird and Barkley-enthusiastically sell their sport. Baseball stars are infamous for shirking such ambassadorship, but Rodriguez is equipped to make a difference. Is it fair to ask someone four years removed from high school to be a flag bearer? Did Pee Wee and Scooter have to worry about endorsement strategies, charitable foundations and media training while learning pitchers' tendencies and improving their footwork around the bag?

"I believe the game is just taking off," Rodriguez says, "and maybe as a group we young shortstops can help. The opportunity is there for us. Baseball always comes first, though. You're in trouble the minute you start thinking you're a media strategist or marketing guy and not a baseball player.

"I want to get better. I love it when people say that last season was a career year for me, that I can't do it again. I love to hear people say that. That's a challenge to me, a major challenge."

Rodriguez, still revving as if it were noon, walks into his den and pops a highlight tape into his VCR. A coffee-table book about Joe Montana is so worn that its cover curls perpetually open. Rodriguez is a voracious reader whose tastes run to the motivational tomes of Pat Riley and Anthony Robbins. The tape begins with a title, Alex Rodriguez. Hitting. 1996. Sitting on a kitchen chair turned backward, he faces the big-screen TV with his chin resting on his crossed arms atop the chair back. His eyes, like his house, are aglow. He is alone with his perfect, edited self. Every pitch is a swing. Every swing is a hit.


Thinking Big

If He Continues to Put Up the Gaudy Numbers, Charismatic Shortstop Alex Rodriguez Could Become Larger Than Life

by: William Ladson

It's around 1 p. m. The Seattle Mariners have just concluded practice, and in the locker room, Alex Rodriguez slowly removes his baseball uniform while watching SPORT interview Edgar Martinez for this story on the kid affectionately know as A-Rod.

After speaking with a few more M's, including Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Rich Amaral, I approach Alex, who doesn't waste any time inquiring about the people I've talked to.

"What did Edgar say about me?" he asks.

"He respects you, as a player and a person," I respond.

"What did Jay say about me?"

"Of all the people I've talked to, he was the only player who didn't give me the sweet company line. He said he likes you but that you're no different than most young kids: You want to be praised, stroked and patted on the back."

"What did Junior say about me?"

"Nothing worth printing. He gave me a lot of garbage. He was in a rush, but he respects you."

"Yeah, it's tough to get his attention."

The 21-year-old Rodriguez is relieved to know that he has the respect of his teammates. And why shouldn't he? In 1996, his first full season in the bigs, he led the American League in batting (.358), runs scored (141) and doubles (54), while slugging 36 homers and driving in 123 runs-numbers easily worthy of an American League MVP award in most any other year. Yet Rodriguez lost the trophy to Juan Gonzalez by a scant three points, 290 to 287.

Months after the award was handed out, young Alex is still hurt, not because Gonzalez edged him out, but because two Mariners beat reporters-Bob Finnigan of the Seattle Times and Jim Street of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer-voted him third and fourth on the ballot, respectively. Both had teammate Griffey as their MVP choice.

"I play this game mostly for the respect of the people in the clubhouse, and that includes the beat writers," Rodriguez says. "When not even one of them thought you were the MVP of the team, that hurts me. I would say 99 percent of the players I saw this off-season told me I deserved it. I'm not taking anything away from Juan, because he had a great year."

Rodriguez may still be sore about the MVP snub, but he's not one for sour grapes. Proving it on this day by having a friendly conversation with Finnigan in the locker room. "I can't hold a grudge," Rodriguez says. "He's treated me good, for the most part."

It would be hard not to. After the breakthrough rookie season Rodriguez enjoyed, Madison Avenue is all but set to break down his door. His representatives already are working on a milk campaign with Bozell Advertising, and Nike intends to hype Alex big in 1998with his own cleats and cross-trainer shoes. If Rodriguez continues to put up the gaudy numbers, don't be surprised if he becomes the biggest thing since Michael Jordan first hit the professional basketball scene in 1984.

Rodriguez has more going for him than just his tremendous skills on the diamond. He's good-looking, a sold citizen and very well spoken in English. No other Latin baseball star has had that combination of traits. Roberto Clemente, maligned by the media during his career with the Pittsburgh Prates, failed to get his props until he won the World Series MVP in 1971, a year before he was killed in a plane crash. Reigning MVP Gonzalez has poor English skills. Jose Canseco was far from a model citizen early in his career. The reasons are endless as to why Latin baseball players haven't gotten rich through endorsements. But Rodriguez has what it takes to break through.

"Alex has the talent and the charisma," says Jeff Jensen, a sports marketing reporter for Advertising Age. "All the pieces are in place. He has to perform, though, and his team has to do really well. It's all about media exposure."

"You got to remember the one big difference between Alex and a lot of these Latin players, ex-superstars: "He is very personable," says Mariners manager Lou Piniella, a Latin American. "He's personable to the media and he speaks the language very well. That's to his advantage."

And what does Alex think of the prospects of breaking new endorsement ground? He feels honored to represent the Latin community off the field, but he still has trouble comprehending why his Latin counterparts have not been able to cash in.

"Guys like Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga and Juan Gonzalez are great people," Rodriguez says, "but Americans don't realize that because these guys can't actually sit down on TV and communicate a story the way they would like.

"Juan is one of the hardest working guys in the major leagues. Roberto Alomar is probably the sweetest guy I've ever met in my life. He's been a tremendous help to me in my career."

But no player in baseball has had more impact on Rodriguez than his idol, Cal Ripken, Jr. They got to know each other during a baseball tour of Japan after the '96 season. And right before the start of spring training, Alex spent time at Cal's home in Maryland, where the two played competitive five-on-five, three-hour basketball games with some of Ripken's friends. One day, the two squared off in a one-on-one battle-old school vs. new school. "Cal hit a jumper in my face to win the game," Alex grudgingly admits.

During their time together, Ripken effectively passed the torch to Rodriguez, the shortstop of the future, offering advice on how to carry himself on and off the field.

"He told me about the difference between being a jerk and a nice guy," says Rodriguez, whose eyes light up when talking about Cal. "He told me to play hard and how the game of baseball is always No. 1.

"It's hard enough playing this game and trying to do all the right things on the field. To me, the biggest challenge is trying to stay focused off the field....It's so easy in today's society to run into trouble, whether it's getting a speeding ticket or whatever. The key is not getting into trouble, whether it means staying home, going to a movie or just hangout out with the right people."

Or by working out. It's obvious to look at Rodriguez and his rock-solid body that he found time to hit the weights during the off-season.

"Alex is the real deal," says teammate and double-play partner Joey Cora. "He's very disciplined on and off the field. He realizes that what he does on the field affects what he could do off of it as for as endorsements go."

Says Buhner: "I would like to see Alex do it again. He carries himself well beyond his years. I think he has the mental part licked."

And if A-Rod doesn't put up the numbers he did last year, it's OK with him-as long as the M's win the World Series.

"I would take a mediocre year at the plate if it meant winning a championship," he says. "If this team could win and I hit .240, I wouldn't care. The only thing I want to do is win. That's what I play the game for."


A Dream

Although he lives a life most people could only imagine, Alex Rodriguez is somebody just trying to rep for the Dominican Republic.

by: Kevin L. Carter

Shaquille O’Neal says the works is his, but even he’s gotta concede that much of it, especially the Spanish-speaking part of it, belongs to Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez of Miami and Seattle. The Seattle Mariners shortstop will not be 23 years old until this July, but he is still the proud possessor of the title “best shortstop in baseball.” In 1996, he put up some of the greatest numbers-.358 batting average, 36 home runs, 123 runs batted in-ever recorded for a shortstop. His team is one of the strongest in the American League. He is rich, handsome and well-loved in Miami and beyond. He has a burgeoning endorsement career that cold place him a unique position among professional athletes in America. That may be why it hurt so bad when he got robbed this past winter. A-Rod stood shirtless in front of his locker at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Arizona last March and thought about his pain. The NCAA basketball Round of 16 was loudly playing from the clubhouse TV. The cortocampo (shortstop) for the ages wolfed down two bowls of Wheaties while teammates such as bald slugger Jay Buhner, who could easily team up with actor John Malkovich in a sequel to Surf Nazis Must Die, walked through Rodriguez’s field of vision.

“There was a guy that I knew, that I took under my wing,” said A-Rod, whose vocal patterns are a curious mixture of Southern inflections, Latino Miami sounds and hip-hip jargon. “I took him to my charity events, the golf tournaments, let him stay in my house sometimes. I wanted to show him the way. He seemed like a nice guy, so I took him in.”

Burglars, possibly led by Rodriguez’s alleged friend, took more than $100,000 in cash, cognac, cigars and Armani suits from Rodriguez’s home in coral Gables, Florida. somebody even took his All-Star game jersey and those he had signed by Ken Griffey Jr. and Cal Ripken.

“We called the cops, and they got him,” said Rodriguez. “The guy was trying to sell the stuff right down the street from where I live.”

After Rodriguez went on a trip to Chicago later, his home was broken into again. Such is the dilemma of life for a man whose lifestyle often resembles that put forward in a Puff Daddy-produced music video, or any others that reflect the consumerist, materialist late ’90s zeitgeist that permeates so much of today’s hip-hop.

What many rappers fantasize about-money, power, respect, Lexus’s and Rolexes, women, champagne, cigars, cognac-is the life enjoyed by superstars such as Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tiger Woods and A-Rod. But A-Rod also knows that some people are gonna try to stick him for his papers. And in his case, they succeeded.

“I feel violated, like I was raped. There is no other way to describe it,” said Rodriguez, who, reluctantly, is considering moving out of his neighborhood and into a more secure, possibly gated community. “You feel like there are no other options than to move out of the city. But I live Miami. I have roots there. If I do leave, it will be tough, but I have to look out for myself.”

Older athletes such as Jordan and Cal Ripken have cautioned him to watch who he allows into his life. “It is very hard to make friends, and it’s hard to determine whom to bring into you inner circle,” he says.

The traumatic events have not derailed A-Rod’s joy for baseball or for life. He is a man who is centered, ambitious and in control of his thoughts and his direction. “I’m in the process of learning every day,” said A-Rod. “I am in a great position here with a great, strong tea, with two or three potential Hall of Famers, and I am just sitting back and learning from them.”

He’s a happy, friendly man who listens to Bad Boy music, especially Mase, and loves to player every position on the field on his Playstation baseball games.

Rodriguez was born in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a Dominican stronghold even back in the mid-’70s. His family moved to the Dominican Republic, where both of his parents came from, for four years and then to Miami’s Kendall suburb, where A-Rod came up. His father left the family when he was age 10, leaving his mother, Lourdes Morales, to raise A-Rod, his brother and sister alone. “I consider my mom MVP-Most Valuable Parent,” he says.

But Rodriguez said he was fortunate that his father gave him one thing-his baseball ability-and that he grew up in Miami, where baseball is played year-round.

Playing in Miami youth leagues and at Westminster Christian High School, a national powerhouse, gave Rodriguez a different athletic socialization process than most Dominican ballplayers. But he is appreciative of his heritage as the latest, and greatest, in a long line of shortstops to come from Dominican backgrounds.

Strangely enough, his multiracial appearance-kinky, dark brown hair cropped close in a fade, bright gray-green eyes and light bronze skin-and Spanish surname are not enough to acquaint the average American sports fan with A-Rod’s ancestry. He says, incredulously, that most people do not perceive him as Dominican or Latino.

“So many people don’t even consider me Latin,” he said. “They’re used to the guys that come from over there. I want to be know as a Dominican. That’s what I am, 100 percent. People are like, ‘Where are you from?’ Most of them don’t know. When you see (Raul) Mondesi, Pedro Guerrero, Alfredo Griffin (all dark-skinned, African-looking players), you immediately associate them with being Dominican. I’m not under Black or white, either. Lots of people think I am Puerto Rican or Cuban. I’m kinda ignored. I have a duty and responsibility to continue the legacy of Dominican in baseball.”

He concedes, sheepishly, that his less-then-perfect spoken Spanish does not help his cause. “I have to work a lot more at it,” he said. But some work on this level on his part could result in huge paydays for A-rod, both north and south of the border.

Right now, he endorses Nike shoes and clothes, Giorgio Armani suits, EA sports, Upper Deck baseball cards and several other products. he is, right now, the most well-compensated, most potentially mainstream Latino athlete in America. Only boxer Oscar de la Hoya, the Mexican-American lightweight, has anywhere near the endorsement juice that A-Rod possesses.

Baseball is, by far, the most popular mainstream sport among Latinos, and the proportion of Latinos in the game is increasing by leaps and bounds every year. But most great Latino baseball players-Juan Gonzalez, Livan Hernanadez, Sammy Sosa (whose voice was dubbed over on his Denny’s commercial), Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto and Sandy Alomar-are not recognizable enough or lack good enough English to play the Jordan role for major League Baseball, Most of baseball’s biggest endorsers-A-Rod’s teammate Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas-are African-American, but Black folks in America have largely given up on baseball.

Think of the endorsements A-Rod’s idol Cal Ripken has, double that by including Latin America, and you can see his potential. Only A-Rod, and to a much lesser extent, Bobby Bonilla, both American-born, hip-hop culture-raised, and Latino at the core, can bridge the gap between Spanish- and English-speaking America.

Just as he is interested in bring his trigueno face and 6-3, ambassadorial status and endorsement prominence, Rodriguez is also very interested in bring baseball to more inner-city youth, who have largely lost interest in the game.

“Everything is generated through the kids. If I were baseball commissioner, I would try to make an impact across the country with wiffleball leagues, or some type of speed guns, make things appealing to kids, where they can enjoy coming to the park. The NBA has done so much with marketing their game, and we need to do the same.”

Baseball, said A-Rod, is a game that all can play. “Baseball has no prejudices. You can be tall, short, Black, white, it doesn’t matter. Through hard work, a guy like this can make a lot of money.”

He and his best friend, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, often compare notes on their respective games. The two men, who stay at each other’s homes when they visit each other’s city during the season, look like they could be brothers, and you could actually imagine them fighting over the same women. A-Rod says none of that happens, but that the one-on-one contests they have in basketball are fiercely contested.

“On the basketball court, Derek has no chance against me,” said Rodriguez. “He’s a pretty good player, but I think he enjoys watching more than he does playing.” But it was Jeter’s team that knocked Rodriguez’s team out of the American League playoffs last year. This year, A-Rod hopes to get some payback on his homie.

“I think we have a team which we firmly believe can compete at the playoff level, and maybe reach the World Series. That’s the goal this year.”