• ESPN.com | MYESPN | Register | Forgot Password?


NEXT, March 23, 1998 (Vol. 1 No. 1)

The date of birth must be a typo: 7/27/75. Someone who is so often compared to the best shortstops in history, who says all the right things, who does so many great things, cannot possibly be only 22. But according to the birth certificate, he is a double-deuce. The record books say something else: No shortstop has ever topped his 59 homers, 207 RBI and 391 hits in two consecutive seasons; the last American League righthanded batter to hit as high as his .358 in '96 was Joe DiMaggio (.381 in '39); the last AL shortstop to win a batting title was Lou Boudreau in 1944.

That's on the field. Off the field, he loves working with kids, reads Gabriel Garca Mrquez, hangs with Cal Ripken and claims Will Hunting as a hero. Like Will, he's a genius. Unlike Will, he's unfailingly polite and considerate. Good Alex Rodriguez. And he'll get better. He is already a step up the evolutionary ladder from Ripken and Robin Yount, the men who 16 years ago, turned shortstop into an offensive position. In '96, Rodriguez had 215 hits with 36 homers, 54 doubles, 123 RBI and 141 runs, a season the likes of which Ripken, Yount, Ernie Banks and Honus Wagner never had. I marvel at it, but I think I can do it again,'' Rodriguez says. Last year, playing with bruised ribs, he hit just .300 with only 23 homers and 84 runs batted in. I was prouder of '97 than '96,'' he says, because I played through pain.''

Defensively, he is still learning the position, but because he's probably the best athlete in the game, he is frequently brilliant. I'd rather hit .250-well, .280-and make 10 errors than break all the records and be subpar defensively,'' he says.

Three years ago against Baltimore, Rodriguez deftly avoided a runner, then sidearmed a bullet to first to complete a double play. Cal and Billy Ripken looked at each other and mouthed the same word: Wow. What amazes me,'' says Mariners infielder Jeff Huson, is how big he is. He doesn't look big in uniform, but the first day I saw him without his shirt, I said, 'Whoa.' Wow. Whoa. Whew. Rodriguez has heard these virtually all his life. I saw him in high school,'' says Cubs general manager Ed Lynch. He was the biggest kid on the field and also the fastest kid. He made a throw well, it was like a Double-A player against 17-year-olds.'' At 6'3'', 208 pounds, he is also deceptively fast-29 stolen bases in 35 attempts. The Mariners won't be moving him to third base any time soon. He'll be a shortstop for a long, long time,'' Ripken says.

Every winter, Rodriguez visits Ripken's home and plays basketball in Cal's gym for a few days. I'm building a gym too,'' Rodriguez says. I'm a bachelor. All I need is a gym and a bedroom. He says that Ripken is his mentor for the same reason that Kobe Bryant has latched on to Michael Jordan. He's the best ambassador we have.'' For Ripken, the friendship is stimulating because he has found someone who understands what it's like to be a big shortstop. He's very curious about my whole career, how I've been consistent,'' Ripken says. That's strange for a guy so young. It makes me feel good to serve in an adviser role. The game is less of a sport than it was 15 years ago. Now if you make a mistake, it can brand your career. I've told him it's more important now more than ever to be careful.''

Rodriguez has listened well, which is why he's the ideal player to steer the game into the next century. Not only is he the player every general manager would select to begin his franchise, but he has brains, good sense, good looks and a catchy nickname: ARod.

I'm very observant,'' he says. Since I was 14, I saw guys I wanted to be like-Ripken, Dan Marino, Joe Montana-and guys I didn't want to be like. If you come to the big leagues too cocky and say stupid things, you will build enormous resentment among teammates.'' Instead, ARod is respectful of those who came before him. He asks me to tell him about Tony Fernandez and Barry Larkin, and what makes them so good,'' says Mariners coach John McLaren.

I'm also very inquisitive, ARod says. I want to learn. That's why we study history. That's why we go to school.'' He went to Miami-Dade College in the off-season to continue his quest for a degree in broadcast communications. He talks about the two A's he received as proudly as the .358 he hit. I keep telling my girlfriend, 'You've got to get your masters,' '' he says. And I want her to keep pushing me to get my degree. I want that piece of paper.''

There is nothing ordinary about Rodriguez: not his game, not his poise, not his awareness at such a young age. There is a difference between image and reputation,'' he says. Image is nice. Reputation is developed over an entire career. Reputation is what I'm searching for.''

He has found it at that improbable age. And there's no indication he'll ever lose it.