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Inside Sports, August 1997

By Alan Schwarz

 

Shortstops Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter talk about their friendship, their rivalry, and the burdens they share as emerging young stars.

They may be the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of baseball. Just when the sport needs them most, crying out for young faces to rescue the game from trying times, Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners and Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees have turned the big leagues on their ear--and, perhaps, on the road back to respectability.

Rodriguez, like Magic Johnson, could redefine the standard of play at his position. In 1996 Rodriguez--who is immense for a shortstop at 6'3" and 200 pounds---had the best hitting season anyone ever had at his position: a .358 average (making him at 21, the third-youngest batting champion in history), 36 home runs, and 123 RBI's, plus league-leading totals of 54 doubles and 141 runs. He finished 2nd by three points to Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers in a controversial most valuable player award vote. Some think Rodriguez could become the best shortstop of all time.

It was Rodriguez' first full season in the majors, but he had had too much previous big-league experience to win rookie of the year award. That honor went unanimously to Jeter, who at the age of 22 hit .314 with 10 home runs and 78 RBIs in helping the Yankees win the World Series. Like Bird, Jeter oozes instincts and cool under fire.

Possibly most striking, though, is how quickly Rodriguez and Jeter have been embraced as a new breed of baseball hero. They smile for the cameras, they sign autographs--and yet they're also suave and savvy, well aware of their nascent fame and what it can afford. GQ is planning a photo shoot with Rodriguez; New York Magazine this past April featured Jeter on its cover. Their good natures and even better looks--forget batting averages, they lead the league in marriage purposals--have thrust them into baseball's thirsty spotlight.

As a result, a certain fraternity has developed between the two stars. It could be seen on Opening Day this season, when Rodriguez hit a hard ground ball that ricocheted off the Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs. Jeter grabbed the ball, whipped around, and slung it to first base as Rodriguez burned down the line. The throw seem to arrive on time, but Rodriguez was considered safe. Jeter flashed a crooked grin toward his friend. Rodriguez smiled back and nodded, tipping his cap to acknowledge what would have been an outstanding play.

Inside Sports caught up with Rodriguez and Jeter at Yankee Stadium earlier this season. they were joking around openly, two kids in the big city having one hell of a good time.

Inside Sports: When did you guys first meet?

Jeter: Back in '76, huh?

Rodriguez: It was earlier. When were we born?

Jeter: No, really we meet over the phone. What were you a senior?

Rodriguez: I was a senior, yeah. Ninteen ninety three--your first year of pro ball.

Jeter: We had a mutual friend. No one you'd know. Alex had called and was asking about his last year of high school, because I'm a year older than him. Things about the draft. That's how we intially met.

And then at a University of Miami baseball game - they were playing Michigan. I went with Jim Abbott and Scott Kamieniecki in my first spring training. We saw each other for the first time face to face.

IS: Do you guys talk during the season?

Rodriguez: Yeah, a few times a week. We share a lot of the same interests. We have a lot of similarities, being young shortstops in the league - there are a lot of the same demands on us. I actually admire what he does, how he goes about his business. More importantly, he's a great player, but he's a great person as well.

The first thing when I wake up in the moring, I check the box score to see how derek Jeter did. I'll ask my mom, "How's Derek doing?" because she lives on the East Coast. A lot of times when we're ready to go out on the field, when our game starts, the Yankees game is on TV. So I'm watching him.

IS: Do you crash together when your team plays each other?

Jeter: Here's how it goes: When he comes to New York, I open my door, "Alex, watcha need, come on in. You can stay with me. My house is your house." When I go to Seattle, I don't get the same respect.

Rodriguez: (Laughing) He's talking about last year in Seattle. I had a one-bedroom. I was on a very short budget--I had a one-bedroom the size of this table. And my mom was in town. So in that time six people were living there. I said, "Derek, you can come sleep on the floor or whatever, 'cause that's the kind of friend I am." This year I have a two-bedroom. So when he comes in, he can stay over.

IS: Is it the mark of the modern athlete and the way they band together that you guys can be friends? Maybe 50 years ago, you wouldn't be able to fraternize with the enemy.

Jeter: On the field there's a rivalry between New York and Seattle, but I'm Alex's biggest fan. Like he says, every morning I check the stats, watch him on TV. Off the field, were friends. We hang out, do whatever we want to do. People say, "How are you that close if you compete all the time?" But off the field we're just like regular people.

IS: Who's the better basketball player?

Jeter: He plays more. He's got me.

Rodriguez: But he's got more hops. he can dunk better.

IS: With you guys being so successful so quickly, while you're still as young as you are, you have a status in baseball that goes beyond the field. You've been thrust into other roles, including that of saviors for a sport that's trying to recover it's popularity. How do you see your jobs beyond hitting and catching the ball?

Rodriguez: I truly believe my job really starts the minute I leave the field. Going out catching ground balls and hitting, that's a job, and that's what I've wanted to do ever since I was a little kid. But when you think about leaving the field, that's when the job and the demands really start. In New York, Seattle, every city--the community, the media, business stuff. You have to stay on a narrow path.

IS: Derek, you're one of the few New York ball players who lives in Manhattan. When you leave your apartment, are you besieged by girls the way you are at the ballpark?

Jeter: I don't have any complaints. The fans are great. We won the World Series, and they treat us like kings. They've been good to me. The extra stuff is no problem.

IS: Who gets more marriage proposals?

Rodriguez: World Series? New York? It's not even close.

IS: You're both close to your families. Has that become more difficult over the past year?

Rodriguez: My mom lived with me until not many months ago, but to say she's not living with me now wouldn't be completely true. She lives about 10 minutes away from me. She's always cooking and doing stuff. I'm lost without her. I was almost forced out of my house in Miami because I really didn't fit in there anymore. I lived there for eight years--you move around, collect all these things, and before you know it your clothes are hanging outside the window.

Jeter: See, he's collecting all these trophies and all that stuff. So his ma kicked him out of the house.

Rodriguez: And for tax purposes I needed a house.

IS: Alex, you said once, with regard of your father who left your family when you were in the fifth grade, "All the love I had for him I just gave it to my mother." Have you had any contact with him?

Rodriguez: That's something I really don't talk about because it's a very personal and a long time ago. I just try to look at it as a positive. I just focus on my mom and move on.

IS: Derek, your father is an African-American and your mother is Irish. Did that have any bearing on your childhood? Did it cause you problems?

Jeter: Not at all. I had friends of all races: Black, white, Spanish, whatever. And I didn't go out and say I've got 10 white friends so I have to have 10 black friends or 10 Spanish friends. I had good friends. It wasn't a problem for me at all.

IS: Your lives have changed so much since your high school days. Has it been hard to handle everything that seems to have happened so fast? Is it a constant juggling act, or have you been able to make it part of your lives?

Jeter: Baseball's a humbling sport. In baseball, one day you can go out and go 5-for-5, hit two homer runs--not me, but Alex--and then next day you can go 0-for-5. You can be on top of the world one minute and on the bottom the next. So I don't think it's a sport that's hard to deal with in terms of success. You have to fail to succeed anyway.

IS: Alex, Last season you had almost every kind of success. It was probably the best year ever for a shortstop. How do you improve on that?

Rodriguez: Many ways. You can never be perfect in this game--until you hit 1.000 and make no errors, you can always improve. Derek last year had rookie of the year and the World Series, but there's so much more he can do. As Derek says, there's so much you can do from one year to the next. one day you're up, up, up, and the next day you're down.

Jeter: We talk a lot with each other. Like we said before, we have similar situations. I look at what Alex does, and I've got a long way to get to where he is. That keeps me going.

IS: How have veteran teammates reacted to your success and your fame? Cecil Fielder once quipped to you, Derek, that "You not like us regular people. Your a star." What's the dynamic in the clubhouse when a young guy gets so big?

Jeter: We have so many stars on our team--I'm in the backround. We've got David Cone, Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill. I'm way at the bottom end.

IS: That isn't really true. You've been described, almost matter-of-factly, as the most popular athlete in New York.

Jeter: [sternly] Nah. I've got a long way to go to be in their catagory.

IS: Alex, you can't say what he said. You are a bona fide, top-of-the-line star. How do your teammates handle the rush?

Rodriguez: Anytime you have a young guy come in with a lot of notoriety and all this stuff, they're going to be skepticle to a certain degree. But if you go out and play every day--play hard, respect the game--and you respect your teammates, things will be fine.

I have some real veterans on my team: Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr. They've all put in their time. Derek and I have only done it for one year, and one year does not make a career like David Cone has had or Randy Johnson has had. Or two years. So for us to be counted as genuine stars, we have a lot more that we need to do and want to do for us to be in that catagory.

Derek's right, we're both in the background. It's nice that people are starting to promote us, but we have to earn our keep.

IS: How do you do that? How do you earn your keep?

Jeter: Over a long period of time. One year? no way. We could do bad one or two years, and they'll forget us.

IS: Alex, You once told Derek, " I don't envy you, man, playing in New York." Can you explain that?

Rodriguez: I'm from New York originally, and I love New York. It's kind of ironic really, that here's a kid from a big city, Miami, playing in Seattle, and the guy from a smaller place--Derek being from Kalamazoo--is playing in New York. But I knew he was going to be very succsseful. The first minute I saw him, the time we spent in the Rookie Development Program, he said, "I love New York." I knew then he'd be alright. A lot of people want to shy away from New York and don't want to play there.

IS: Are you one of those people?

Rodriguez: I love Seattle. It's a good way for me to kind of sneak up on people. The attention's not there constantly. I think I'd love playing for New York, Boston, one of these big cities, but i think it's a little easier for me in Seattle. It's better for me there.

Jeter: I think the difference between New York and other cities is that the change can be so dramatic because the media attention here is so much. But I love New York--we won the World Series my first year, and that's all I know. We've been treated like kings.

IS: Do you deserve to be treated like a king?

Jeter: I don't know about that. I enjoy that we won--I enjoyed it--but that's over with. I'm trying to move on.

IS: Alex, the MVP award didn't work out as you hoped. How have you moved on from that?

Rodriguez: Last year, the way I looked at it, my goal was to have a big year. And I did--but it was a bad year to have a great year. Mo Vaughn had a great year; Juan Gonzalez who won it; Junior had a great year; Frank Thomas.

It was a learning experience. It's an award that you can have a great year and not win it. So I don't know if I'll ever be able to win that award. It would have been nice.

IS: Do you think your gracious answers to all the questions beforehand, when you repeatedly said that Junior was the Mariners' MVP, cost you?

Rodriguez: You wonder sometimes I guess. I try not to worry about it.

IS: Derek, what was it like sitting next to Rachel Robinson at the New York baseball writers dinner in January?

Jeter: I wouldn't be where I am at today if it weren't for Jackie Robinson. Unfortunately I never got the opportunity to meet him, but to meet his wife--she had just as much a role as he did, maybe even bigger. There were times when he felt like maybe he couldn't deal with it, and she was the one who made him feel like he could again. It was a big thrill to speak to her and sit next to her. It's something I'll never forget.

IS: What was more of a thrill, sitting next to Rachel Robinson at the dinner or next to Tyra Banks at the Knicks game?

Jeter: [with a chagrined laugh] See, there it is again, Tyra Banks.

IS: Do you wanna set the record straight, once and for all?

Jeter: YES! I went to a Knicks game with my dad, and Tyra Banks--we have the same agent, IMG--was sitting next to me. And someone took a picture. [When It was published], under the picture it said that Tyra Banks went to the game with me. My dad is right next to me, but they didn't say anything about him--just Tyra and me together. So were dating and everything because we were shot together in New York. All the time I hear that. Everybody asks about that.

IS: Does that ever happen to you in Seattle, Alex?

Rodriguez: Nah. You have to be on of the rock stars to have that happen.

IS: What does the future hold for you? What do you see?

Rodriguez: Hopefully, what Derek has: a world series championship. I want that very bad. I would trade everything about my season last year for what he had.

IS: And Derek, what do you see in your future?

Jeter: Hopefully, the opportunity to play for a long time. I like playing baseball. I like playing in New York. I love winning championships, so hopefully we can win some more. There's nothing better then that, especially in New York.

IS: Alex said that he wants what you had. Do you want what he has?

Jeter: I think everybody wants what he has. Last year he should've won the MVP. That's my opinion--I'm a little baised because he's a friend of mine--but what he did no one's ever done before. If you can't win the MVP doing that, what do you have to do? As a shortstop, what do you have to do?

IS: You guys are saviors of the game, just when it needs you most. Do you enjoy that responsibility? Do you accept it?

Rodriguez: We weren't really around during the strike, and I think being poststrike players has a lot to with the labels they put on us. Saying that we're going to save the game--that's a lot of pressure for a young guy. I think you just have to go out and be the best person you can be, on and off the field, and let the chips fall where they may.

IS: Derek, what do you think?

Jeter: Alex and I have talked about this before, and what we've decided is, what you see is what you get. We're not going to try and go out and act a certain way--we're going to act as we've always acted. If people want to see us act that way, I have no problem with that.

I am NOT affiliated with the New York Yankees. I am just a fan. I am not Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or any other member of the Yankee ballclub. This site is mainly for entertainment purposes only.