A big grin and an even bigger game

Alex Rodriguez turns 30 today, a fact particularly remarkable as this is his 12th straight birthday in the major leagues. Rodriguez was only 18 in early July 1994, when the Mariners called him up and began a dozen years of dominance.

It's hard to imagine A-Rod as a teenager spending his first few weeks in the majors, a sapling among redwoods. But I had the pleasure of being there at the time, on assignment from Baseball America. My job was not to explore how good he was -- that was obvious -- but to let readers know who he was, his personality, what made him tick.

As you'll see, the Rodriguez we know today was there at 18 -- from the confidence and charisma to the slick suits and sly smile. Here is that time capsule from July 1994.

Don't tell Alex Rodriguez there's no such thing as a free lunch.

"We were at a [Miami] Heat game," Rodriguez recalls, "and I think we only had like $3 left. We were so hungry, man. So we went up to the concession stand and got three nachos -- you know how expensive things are over there, right? Three nachos, two Cokes, pop tarts, Jujyfruits … and the girl there, she's looking at me. She thinks I'm kind of cute and everything."

Alex flashed the girl his playful smile, talked a bit, smiled again … and learned that on the $20 tab, his $3 would do just fine. "We were like, 'YESSS!'" says Rodriguez, who bounded away, tipping his new friend with an over-the-shoulder grin and one last look at his gallant, green eyes.

That episode happened in high school. But Rodriguez hadn't lost any of his charm this summer, when he and best friend Robert Perez needed to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle after the All-Star break.

"We go to the ticket booth, and he asks how much it costs to go first class," Perez says. "It's $600, and Alex goes, 'No way!' So we go upstairs to the check-in, and there's this lady and two girls behind the counter. Alex goes, 'Watch this -- I'm gonna get us in first class without paying.'

"He talked with them for about 20 minutes, and we ended up going for free. He just starts smiling and laughing. I don't know. It just happens."

His friends call him Eddie Murphy. Alex Rodriguez can get all the girls, everyone from concessionaires to his old teachers at Miami's Westminster Christian Academy. He talked his way out of countless classes during his senior year, and then would scamper over to Coach Hofman's office to rap for hours.

About girls? No -- that was just a hobby. His passion, for as long as he can remember, was to play baseball in the major leagues.

And as we've learned, Alex Rodriguez knows how to get what he wants.

* * * *

Fast-forward to the dreadful summer of 1994 for the Mariners, who in early July were floundering with a 35-48, last-place record and decided to start the Alex Rodriguez Era early. He was still only 18, 20 days short of his 19th birthday, but was tearing up the minors. The shortstop instantly became the youngest regular in the big leagues since Robin Yount 20 years ago.

Rodriguez fits right in -- or certainly feels like it. He hollers "Hey E! What time's warm ups?" across the clubhouse at Eric Anthony. He bounces around from locker to locker asking questions. This hasn't been a particularly enjoyable summer for the Mariners, preseason favorites in the American League West, but Rodriguez's arrival gave them opportunity for a little fun with the kid who just wants to be liked.

"He tries to come into the back of the plane, and I won't let him," says reliever Rich Gossage, who broke into the big leagues in 1972, several years before Rodriguez was born. "Luis Sojo, Edgar Martinez and Felix Fermin are sitting back there, and he wants to come back there and talk to them, and I won't let him -- he doesn't have enough time yet. He tries to sneak back, and I'll start beating on him."

New friends made Rodriguez's favorite (and not inexpensive) suit mysteriously disappear for a few days, blaming its departure on the airlines. Ken Griffey Jr. is plotting to nab the rookie's snazzy threads before a road trip, thereby forcing him to wear a hideous outfit selected just for him.

Until then, Griffey's role with Rodriguez is less thief than teacher. Griffey, of course, broke into the big leagues at 19 amid tremendous hoopla. Now there is a new kid in town, and the talk on the street sounds so familiar: How good is he? Is he ready? Is he the answer?

Griffey requested that Rodriguez be assigned the locker beside his for Rodriguez's first series, at Boston, to help him adjust alongside someone he could relate to. Indeed, Rodriguez often sat on his locker stool transfixed, looking up at Griffey wide-eyed and eager, watching him do everything from changing clothes to unwrapping a free pair of Nikes.

"At times, he's one of the only people I can talk to because he's been through it," Rodriguez says. "Junior's just like a boy of mine because he's young and he acts young, so that's cool. He's just a buddy, Junior.

"I'm a very good listener, because I have to be. Everything anybody says, I listen to and apply whatever I think is best for me and useful to my advantage."

Rodriguez also learned the art of playing with the press. He told a visiting writer he'd have breakfast with him one morning in Chicago, and to wake him with a phone call at 9 a.m. There was no answer then or every 15 minutes thereafter, before Rodriguez walked into the clubhouse at 3 p.m.

"Hey, man, I was there waiting for your call," he said. "I must have had the ringer off or something."

He said this midstride on his way to the trainer's room, flashing the same coy smile over his shoulder that he gave the concession girl two years ago.

* * * *

Before the amateur draft began in 1965, the big leagues were crawling with 18-year-olds -- particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s, when rules designed to curb spiraling bonuses (then around $70,000) forced dozens of prep stars to spend their first year or two in the major leagues, mostly sitting on the bench.

One player affected by this was a young shortstop from Tampa named Tony La Russa. He signed his first pro contract with the Kansas City Athletics, reportedly for around $100,000, the night he graduated from high school in 1962; the bonus rules forced him to stay on the major league roster as an 18-year-old the entire next year.

"I was 11-for-44, and I swung at every first-pitch fastball I saw," says La Russa, now the A's manager. "If they'd ever wanted to work the count on me, I probably wouldn't have gotten any hits."

Since 1970, only 11 players have reached the big leagues at 18, usually due to contractual clauses, publicity stunts, or because they were foreigners who had turned pro as young as 16. The last 18-year-old, drafted position player to be called up on merit was Robin Yount, but even that flew under the radar. When he became Milwaukee's Opening Day shortstop in April 1974 the press barely cared, given that Hank Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth's home-run record that same week. Heck, later that season after Yount hit a game-winning home run, a reporter rushed into the Brewers locker room and began interviewing the assistant clubhouse boy.

Rodriguez is far more recognizable than Yount was at the same stage. Comparisons to Griffey and his instant ascent to stardom have been rampant since Rodriguez was picked No. 1 overall in the 1993 draft, six years after Griffey went No. 1 himself. Also, Rodriguez signed a contentious, $1.3 million contract with Seattle last summer, a deal his agent, Scott Boras, has filed a grievance over -- contending the Mariners improperly negotiated with a family friend, Joe Arriola, rather than him. Arriola contends he did so at Rodriguez's request.

Rodriguez won't discuss the grievance except for one comment, during which he assumes a sad look.

"I really want to thank Joe Arriola for everything he did for me," he says. "He didn't mean to hurt me at all. Whether he did or not, that's unknown. But I'm appreciative of his help, because his intentions are good."

Rodriguez asks specifically for those words to be included in this story. The fact is, he's quite genial and mature, however playful, and clearly is aware of and concerned with the image he projects.

He refers to friends back in Miami as "his people." And upon returning there last winter, he made sure to do the Westminster Christian basketball coach a favor, announcing a few of the school's hoops games on radio again. His trademark "Twoooooooooo!" sounded exactly as it had in the old days before his rookie cards stormed the commodities market.

Rodriguez left his people awfully quickly, whisked away on a magic carpet to super stardom. This season he destroyed minor-league pitching in his first crack, hitting .313-15-63 in 83 games for Class A Appleton and Double-A Jacksonville before his call up. Rich Hofman, Rodriguez's high school coach, visited Rodriguez in the minor leagues and says he hadn't changed at all.

"We had a great night at the ballpark, and then I had Alex and Robert Perez over to my aunt's house," Hofman says. "We reminisced about his high school days, girls … It was 2 a.m. before we finally got out of there. He wasn't the guy who's in the big leagues with a lot of money and all that.

"It was the same way this summer, when he came back during the All-Star break. He came over to the house for about an hour. But then he said, 'I have to go sign autographs for a half hour.' He was getting paid $7,000. I said, 'OK, I guess you have to go.'"

* * * *

And off Alex Rodriguez went to his new life, one that ultimately could make him an icon. He's talented, bouncy and also bilingual, a byproduct of his Dominican parents and early days in the Dominican Republic. A Spanish-speaking Ken Griffey would be quite a marketing tool for Major League Baseball, something Rodriguez clearly understands.

In his short time so far with the Mariners, Rodriguez has shown flashes of his immense raw talent. A stunning physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds -- "They sure make 'em tall now," Griffey quips -- Rodriguez glides gracefully to ground balls, his huge hands strong and sure. (One dive-and-gun left the Red Sox aghast.) The problem comes when his slickness translates far worse on the field than it does at ticket booths. He lazily and somewhat theatrically drops his elbow on throws, causing the ball to sail, and made six errors in his first 17 games.

"I don't like to see sure plays where you flip the ball up," Seattle infield coach Sam Perlozzo says. "If you're a six- or seven-year veteran in the big leagues and you do that, that's your routine, and nobody cares. What I'm trying to do is to prevent this kid from making easy mistakes. Once he gets established, you know, he can do what he wants."

On the whole, teammates don't resent Junior Jr.'s early start. "Alex is a good kid," Anthony says. "He's a comfortable young ballplayer. And I'll go so far as to say Alex will be the franchise in the future."

Though he won't say so, one can sense that Rodriguez has that in his plan, one devised long ago. "For me," he says, "I felt like I was gonna make it. For me it wasn't, 'If I make it, how am I gonna act?' It's just, 'When am I gonna make it?' I know I can do it. I've been successful all my life. I see no reason I shouldn't make it."

Alex Rodriguez will almost certainly make it, and probably be an all-star within three or four years. Maybe he'll even become the next Cal Ripken like they say.

He'll walk away from the game in 2014, flashing us yet another over-the-shoulder grin. We'll know it well by then.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.