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
"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
"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."