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Sporting News, The, June 28, 1999 by Michael Knisley


TSN takes you inside the off-field life of Alex Rodriguez, one of baseball's best young talents
"Man, I'm dying of depression here," says Alex Rodriguez, but he doesn't really need to give voice to his gloom. His body language says enough. He's 90 minutes into a two-hour visit to Seattle Children's Hospital, and his broad, 23-year-old shoulders are sagging. His walk is slow. His eyes, normally a striking green with a tint of yellow, are glazed and gray.
Rodriguez isn't very good at this.

To be fair, the hospital asks a lot of its celebrity visitor. He has already seen crash victims, cystic fibrosis patients, a high-school athlete who took a javelin in the head, a 17-year-old with lymphatic syndrome who can barely talk but whose cough raises, goosebumps, and a 19-year-old whose double lung transplant has morphed into diabetes anti kidney failure thanks to the post-transplant anti-rejection drugs. "The kidney, like, ate all my muscles," she tells him.

Rodriguez, who isn't gregarious even in the happiest of circumstances, doesn't say much in these first 90 minutes. Fortunately, he doesn't have to. To the kids, it's enough that he has come, that he's here. It doesn't matter that he isn't doing 10 minutes of stand-up comedy in every room.
In Seattle, they know who he is, which is all that counts. They know he's A-Rod, the light of the city's sporting life. The Pacific Northwest connects with him in ways that don't require his words of encouragement. If he just sits quietly in a hospital room and signs his children's book, Hit A Grand Slam, and offers a gentle, "Enjoy the book, and get well," then it's enough to make a difference in a day. There are pictures and autographs for everyone, and memories are made all around.

It's the first morning of our five days with Rodriguez, who became baseball's first 40-40 infielder (40 home runs and 40 stolen bases) last year and only the third player to do it from any position (joining Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds). Although a knee injury that cost him five weeks on the disabled list in April and May will keep him from repeating his 40-40 in '99, he is on his way to another brilliant season.

Rodriguez is arguably the game's best young talent, if not the best player, period, right now. Poll baseball insiders about the first player they'd take to start a team, and Rodriguez gets mentioned at least as often as his Seattle teammate, Ken Griffey Jr., or any of the game's other stars. But as a chatty, cheer-'em-up envoy to the sick and infirm ... well, Rodriguez is a late-round draft choice, at best

"I don't like hospitals," he says later over lunch at Piatti, an upscale Italian restaurant near the University of Washington. "I feel very uncomfortable doing that. I usually let somebody from my foundation (Grand Slam for Kids) handle that sort of thing. I mean, I'll do anything for them. I'll call 'em on the phone. I'll send them flowers. I'll sign things. I just don't like going there."
Right now, he's 90 minutes into uncomfortable, and the worst is yet to come. For whatever reason, the hospital wants his last stop to be the inpatient psychiatric unit. Megan Keister, the special-projects coordinator who has been leading these tours twice a week for the past three years, has never taken anyone in here before. But today, the unit's doctors and nurses have requested Alex's presence, so there is some anxiety from the administrative staff. The kids in the hall are unpredictable, many of them suffering from extreme emotional or mental instability.
Mostly, these last 30 minutes go well. The kids even provide a few of the visit's lighter moments.

"Do you drive a Hummer?" asks one. "A-Rod, can you mention us on TV?' asks another.
"You're Alex Rodriguez? I thought he was," says a third child as he points to Doug Taliaferro, a 5-8 goodwill ambassador for the hospital whose waistline, while not immense, is a pretty clear indication that his best playing days are behind him.

But as Rodriguez prepares to leave, one little boy loses it. He screams and runs and doesn't stop, and Rodriguez and the rest of us are told to stay where we are until he can be controlled. For five torturous minutes, we listen to him shriek. Rodriguez is stunned, as are all of us who don't deal with this on a daily basis. He leans against a wall for support, arms hugged across his chest, and starts asking questions: What's wrong with him? What can be done? Did I cause this?

The views out the windows are the best in Seattle. To the west, across the bright blue of Puget Sound, are the snow-peaked mountains of Olympic National Parle To the south, through the city skyline, are the Kingdome and the Mariners' soon-to-open new ballpark, Safeco Field. To the north, the Space Needle.

Rodriguez has the apartment furnished in early yuppie. OK, upper-end early yuppie. Leather couch in the living room. Stereo. Small computer desk with a big CPU and monitor. A large bookcase holding, among others, George Will's Men At Work, Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Anicka Rodman's Worse Than He Says He Is (White Girls Don't Bounce).
When we arrive, the big-screen television is tuned to the movie Selena on HBO. Two sets of golf dubs lean against the wall. (He lives with his cousin, Yuri Sucart, who manages his day-to-day affairs.) His 1998 Silver Slugger Award is propped up in front of the window. A small cigar humidor sits on the floor. That leaves plenty of room for a putting surface on the living-room rug, with a beer glass on its side for the hole.

Except for its location on the top floor of a high-rise in the heart of downtown, except for the views, the apartment might belong to any young professional, anywhere. There are only a few suggestions of celebrity: red boxing gloves signed by Oscar de la Hoya, an autographed portrait of Mickey Mantle, a couple of framed A-Rod photo spreads that have appeared in other magazines. He clearly isn't eking out a living here. But in Seattle, Rodriguez doesn't live in the lap of palatial luxury you might expect of someone with a five-year, $10.6 million contract and much, much more on the way.

"He understands that he's 23 going on 24, and he understands that things are going to change," says Cynthia Scurtis, his girlfriend, who lives in Miami and will join Rodriguez on the Detroit leg of our road trip with him. "He doesn't want or need to have everything right now. He doesn't do things on impulse. He thinks them through. But it's such a quick process with him. He doesn't open his mouth without thinking things through, but he thinks things through so fast. It just flows. It's a natural gift. "It's like, when it comes to work and basic life, he switches into a different mode and it just comes out. I don't know how he does it. He can be acting foolish, like a kid, one minute. And the next minute, if you ask him a serious question, he just switches over and he's like a 45-year-old man who's had a million life experiences."

At the moment, he's sharing a life experience with Shorty, his brand new 7-week-old yellow lab puppy. (His AKC-registered name is "A-Rod's 40-40 of Devonshire.") The puppy isn't staying with him yet and won't until it's housebroken and trained. Terri Smith, who does that work, has brought the dog to the apartment for a getting-to-know-you session. Until Rodriguez can take him full time, Shorty is sleeping on one of his shirts at Smith's house to become accustomed to his new master's scent. On the ride down the elevator, as we leave for the ballpark, Rodriguez says, "Know what Shorty's last name is?"
"I give up."
"Stop."
Duh.

"He's already a complete player," says Rudy Terrasas, a scout for the Texas Rangers. "He can beat you in all facets of the game-with his power, his speed and his glove. And he's still young, with a tremendous upside. People who play like he does are usually 28, 29, 30 years old. He's not even 24 yet and doing it.... For my money, if I was starting a club and needed a shortstop, considering his age and athleticism, he'd be my choice. If I had to take one, I'd take A-Rod."
The rest of baseball, or at least the "haves" of baseball, may get that chance. Rodriguez and Griffey can become free agents after the 2000 season, and that prospect will keep the Mariners' stars in the news for the next 18 months. The scrutiny began in Seattle early this spring: Will they stay or will they go? Will the club be able to afford them both? Will one be traded to ensure that the Mariners can pay the other? Will either of them care to stay if the other leaves?

Even now, neither Rodriguez nor Griffey can breathe a word that isn't being sent off to an FBI crime lab for analysis of the evidence it might hold about their futures. In Detroit, the newspaper carries speculation about the Tigers' interest in A-Rod. Talk is hot in New York about a trade to the Mets. The Dodgers are always a possibility. Wouldn't he like to play near his home in Miami? The Yankees don't need a shortstop (Rodriguez's good friend, Derek Peter, plays there), but he'd sure look good in pinstripes at third base. You'd think it would be a burden, except that neither Griffey nor Rodriguez appears to be affected on the field-they're both having All-Star-caliber seasons.

"Eighteen months," says Griffey, who will be 30 in November and is better-equipped than Rodriguez to fend off these ad hoc investigations. "I just tell him, `Hey, you've got 18 months. Don't say anything. Just go out and play. You're not going to make up your mind fight now, because it's impossible.'" The relationship between Griffey and Rodriguez is difficult to get a grip on. There is mutual respect on the field, unquestionably. There is friendship off it, obviously. On a Friday night, well after the Mariners' 7-3 win over San Francisco, Rodriguez spots Griffey's 5-year-old son in the clubhouse, about to leave, and calls to him. "Trey," he says, "come here and give me a hug," and he whispers to the youngster as they embrace.

But the team, maybe even the city, may not be big enough for both players much longer. When Rodriguez was just breaking in, Griffey was the perfect, teammate/icon, siphoning off the spotlight so the kid could get his feet wet in the big leagues. Now, Rodriguez is ready to be The Man somewhere. As long as Griffey is a Mariner, that will be difficult in Seattle. "We've never had a falling out," Griffey says. "It's like a big brother-little brother relationship. I try to make sure he keeps right. I mean, my wife always tells me, `Make sure you take care of him.' His mom and my mom talk every time they get to see each other. This is a lot different than growing up in a college or something. This is on-the-job training."

It might take a $200 million offer to lock up Rodriguez, who will be 25 at the start of his next contract. That kind of money doesn't sound like Seattle, especially with Griffey expected to command nearly as much. If $200 million seems outlandish, try to remember how inconceivable Kevin Brown's $105 million deal with the Dodgers seemed a year and a half before he got it. An intriguing sidelight: Brown and Rodriguez both use agent Scott Boras.

"I don't know how I deal with it," Rodriguez says when I suggest the constant scrutiny about his future may be troublesome. "I don't have an answer for that. I've never been under such a microscope. I guess the way you deal with it is to be honest with people. You speak from your heart. But I don't know. I'm not experienced with this. It's not like fielding a ground ball or hitting the curve. I guess I sit back and weigh all my options. It's another 18 months, and we'll see what's to be."

I've promised myself I won't badger him about exactly "what's to be." When I mention that Jeter vigorously defended his friend's privacy and turned away my recent efforts to dislodge some useful nugget of A-Rod trivia, Rodriguez says, "Derek didn't tell you anything about me, huh? That's what New York will do to you." Is that a shot at Gotham? And at lunch one day, Rodriguez is talking about Coors Field, where he clobbered a 451-foot home run a few days earlier. Could that mile-high hitters' haven be his next destination? I fight off the impulse to ask, but he offers this observation on his own: "I think I'd hate playing there," he says. "You'd never get the credit for your offensive numbers. I mean, I hit that home run the other night and felt guilty about it."
While we're out and about Seattle, Rodriguez isn't bothered by fans. It's strange.

Outside the hospital and the Kingdome, I don't see him sign a single autograph. No one asks. He isn't hassled in Detroit, either, during an outing with pitcher Jamie Moyer to tape some radio spots for AT&T. This is interesting, in light of his image as Seattle's most eligible bachelor. At 6-3, wealthy and attractive, he is unquestionably a heartthrob for women of all ages, and certainly the wholesome role model every mother wants her daughter to date-or every mother wants to date herself.

"He's Mr. Clean," says his teammate and friend, David Segui. "He's milk-and-cookies. He doesn't like to hear that, but he is. He likes everybody in here to think he's some kind of thug from Miami, but he's as milk-and-cookies as it gets. This heartthrob thing? It's for real. He's a good-looking guy. He's a good-looking guy with some money, and every woman is attracted to that.... But he's very respectful. He's a good guy."

For the heartthrob record, Rodriguez has been dating Scurtis for two years. Scurtis says, "People fall in love with his image. But that's, all it is. They love the idea of Alex. They love his smile. He's very attractive. They respond to that. People are always telling me, `Oh, he's 23, he's so good-looking, he has all this money. How can you trust him?' But all you have to do is know him. That's all." Rodriguez senses his allure even as he pooh-poohs it Last year, in an attempt to deal with his fan mail, he and his brother built a web page, provided it with regular updates on Alex and invited e-mail. Now, AROD.com, which is a partner with sportingnews.com, is a burgeoning enterprise, and the e-mails come from around the globe.

Some are declarations of love. Some are cries for help. Some are just plain goofy. At the Kingdome, TSN photographer Bob Leverone runs into 12-year-old Domenique Goncalves, who has painted her face with hearts and A-Rods. She has been a fan since Rodriguez visited her school a couple of years ago, walking among the assembled students with a microphone, taking questions and giving advice. At one point, she says, he looked down at a girl and pointed out, into the mike, that her fly was open. She burst into tears. Several days later, Rodriguez sent an apology and six tickets to a game. Goncalves got to use one of the tickets and has been coming back ever since.

When I run her version of the story past Rodriguez, he confirms it. "Oh, I felt awful," he says. "I felt so bad for her afterward." But on the street, in restaurants, Seattle more or less leaves Rodriguez alone. There is a fascinating juxtaposition between the public stir he doesn't cause in the Northwest and Jeter's celebrity in New York. Several weeks ago at a Knicks playoff game in Madison Square Garden, the scoreboard video screen flashed shots of the glitterati in attendance-Woody Allen, Spike Lee, the usual assortment of movie stars and Big Apple muckety-mucks. They all received polite applause, until Jeter's face appeared-which brought do house.His baseball numbers, his drop-dead good looks and his bachelorhood all scream that Rodriguez is as worthy of that raucous reception as Jeter is. Rodriguez says he isn't sure he wants that much of what Jeter has, other than his buddy's two World Series tings. His choice of venue 18 months from now, wherever it may be, will say plenty about his willingness to turn it down.

Not even Scurtis can get a reading on the level of Rodriguez's desire for fame. They see highlights of another player, and she wonders why they aren't showing her boyfriend. When she says it out loud, he defends the player they show. "So, deep down in his heart, does he want to be the one they're always talking about?" she says. "I honestly don't know. I think it would be inhuman not to want that. But he never expresses it. I just see how hard he works, and I wish sometimes that there was a little more recognition. But you know what? He's going to be around for a very long time. And in the end, the recognition will be there. I know that."

Michael Knisley is a senior writer/ for THE SPORTING NEWS. TSN correspondent Jack Etkin contributed to this story.

RELATED ARTICLE: Interactive with A-Rod

Before the season, THE SPORTING NEWS and AROD.com formed a partnership to give fans a chance to interact with Alex Rodriguez. Sportingnews.com and AROD.com team up to provide daily game updates, plus regular columns from the Seattle shortstop and mailbags in which he answers questions from fans. In addition, an Alex Rodriguez fan club was set up at Yahoo! and now has almost 1,000 members. Alex also chats every few weeks in the Yahoo! auditorium. If you need news about Alex, want his opinion on issues or have a message to send, visit AROD.com, where he recently discussed how he deals with trade rumors:

"The truth is I talked with management during spring training about their plans for me. I asked if they would try to trade me this season, and they said no. I haven't talked to anyone in management about the subject since the season started.

"I can't control it anyway, so why should I worry about it? As I told the Seattle media, I love playing in Seattle. (Ken) Griffey's dad told him your first major league team is always special. I feel the same way. "But the bottom line is what direction this team wants to go. Does management want to hang around in the middle of the pack or make the moves necessary to win a championship? As for the premise the team can't afford both of us, I don't believe 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.