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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.

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.