Articles on Alex Rodriguez

ALEX PICKS UP THE TAB

Alex Rodriguez , the Seattle Mariners All-Star shortsop, drew a crowd of minor leaguers while he was getting in some batting practice. He drew an even bigger crowd when he tossed out a dinner invation recently.

"I was getting in some extra hitting after our game and some of the minor leaguers (who had just finished their workout) started watching me," Rodriguez said. " I asked if they wanted to go out to dinner, expecting a few to say yes. I told them to meet me outside our clubhouse."

About an hour later, 27 players were waiting for him. He had to ask John Marzano, the M's back-up catcher, to help shuttle the players to the restaurant and back to their hotel.

"Those kids were hungry," Marzano said. "It might have been only 27 of them, but they ate like 50."

Three hours after the dinner began, the players had consumed an estimated 600 buffalo wings and at least one full meal apiece.

The tab, which came to about $1,100, was picked up by Rodriguez.



WELL GROUNDED AT SHORTSTOP

Rodriguez, Just 21, Tears Down Pitching While Building Up His Sport With Enthusiasm and Respect

~By Murray Chass

Alex Rodriguez sat in front of his locker in the Seattle Mariners' clubhouse one morning this spring, talking and absentmindedly sucking on a lollipop.

"Hey, Alex," Jay Buhner said from across the aisle, "is that your all- day sucker?"

At the age of 21, Rodriguez is still young enough to enjoy a lollipop now and then, yet old enough to be in a major league clubhouse enduring good-natured needling about his youth from older teammates.

At the age of 21, Rodriguez is also a phenomenal baseball player. He may be an even more phenomenal person. It is easy to walk away from a conversation with him wanting to take him home to be another child in the family.

"We have a big responsibility as young men of this game," Rodriguez said. "We're very fortunate. We have to communicate with the fans, who we really need to get this game back to where it needs to be. It's not just about hitting home runs and making great plays and winning championships. It's getting the fans to realize this is the best game in the world."It kills me to see kids playing golf and soccer. Get out of here. It's the best game anyone could play."

And that wasn't even a paid commercial for Major League Baseball. At a time when some (many?) players don't know of Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith, Seattle Manager Lou Piniella says Rodriguez has "a sense of history for this game" that sets him apart. "He's aware of who's played shortstop, of some of the great players who have played this game and how they conducted themselves," Piniella explained. "And he talks about it. He's the real McCoy."

Rodriguez was born in New York - he recalls living in Manhattan - and moved to Miami when he was 7. He was, from the time he can remember, which really isn't all that long ago, a baseball fan.

"I was a huge Mets fan," he said. "I watched every game in '86, either on satellite or WOR. Kiner's Corner, Tim McCarver, the whole thing. My favorite player was Keith Hernandez. I loved him. I loved everything about him. "I realize all the work that's been done for us to be where we are today. I think that's going to help me throughout my career. I realize we're not here as a coincidence. A lot of people put in a lot of work. We have a lot to be thankful for."

This is not some wide-eyed, overawed kid sitting in the bleachers grasping a foul ball he just caught. This is a shortstop who produced an unprecedented performance last year, playing at the age of 20 for more than half the season, until July 27.

In his first complete major league season, and only his third professional season, Rodriguez batted .358, hit 36 home runs, and drove in 123 runs. His average led the American League, as did his runs scored (141), total bases (379), grand slams (3), and doubles (54). He finished among the top eight in six other important offensive categories, including slugging percentage (.631, fourth) and on-base percentage (.414, eighth).

No shortstop had ever reached his totals in runs, hits, doubles, extra-base hits and slugging percentage. His total bases tied for the most ever by a shortstop. All of this from a kid who in 48 games with the Mariners the year before batted .232, hit 5 home runs, and drove in 19 runs.

Tony Gwynn, the seven-time National League batting champion, was not surprised."The first time I saw him bat in spring training last year convinced me," said Gwynn, whose San Diego Padres share a training complex here with the Mariners. "Andy Ashby was pitching, the bases were loaded, there were two out. Ash is trying to run a sinker down and in, down and in on him. He's trying to keep his hands inside the ball and he keeps fouling it off and fouling it off and fouling it off. "Finally he got a ball that was in a little but not in. He got his hands inside the ball, inside-outed it right up the middle for a base hit. I said, he's been working with somebody. He's picked it up already. I told Luis Lopez, you watch, he's going to have a good year this year. He'll probably hit .300 this year. Little did I know."

Piniella said the key to Rodriguez's rapid development was his learning the strike zone. "It came almost overnight last spring," the manager said. "It wasn't there one week, and all of a sudden it started coming the following week and just got better and better and better."

Lee Elia, the Mariners' hitting coach, said the change came when Rodriguez shortened his swing. "He came down one day and said he wasn't feeling comfortable," Elia related. "It was at that time we took away a real long swing. We worked four, five days shortening up on it, making him understand that he had enough leverage and enough bat speed through the hitting area that he didn't have to stay long. As the base-hit gods would do, the first game he played after all the work, he got a couple hits. He felt comfortable and went into the season with a good frame of mind."

Rodriguez said Elia's advice accorded with his own thinking, which he derived from watching tapes of his teammate Edgar Martinez, the AL batting champion in 1992 and 1995. "I took Edgar's tapes home the last two winters," Rodriguez said. "The tapes were three hours long, all his hits from '94 and '95. I watched them about three times a week. Tony Gwynn's favorite quote is, I did Edgar Martinez better than Edgar did Edgar Martinez last year.

"If you have a great hitter, if you have a great player, Michael Jordan, why not take the opportunities to look at them and do some of the great things they do? Great players do all the fundamental things in pressure situations. The reason the Yankees won the World Series was because they did the fundamentals in pressure situations. That's the way I feel."

Rodriguez received several player-of-the-year awards, but he fell 3 points short of Juan Gonzalez for the coveted most valuable player award. He might have cost himself the award by suggesting, when asked by some voting members of the Baseball Writers Association, that Ken Griffey, Jr., not he was the m.v.p.

"If I can lose the m.v.p. every year because of my humility, I will lose it every year," Rodriguez said. "I find it to be very fascinating that Albert Belle supposedly has lost it because he hasn't been cooperative; he's been arrogant. That's what people have said. And for somebody to say I lost it because of my humility, thank you very much. That's a compliment."

Rodriguez was highly sought in the off season. In a hectic itinerary, he traveled all over the United Stares as well as to Japan and the Dominican Republic. He did not forget baseball, though. "I've never worked harder at the game of baseball than I did this last off season," he said. "It was commercial shoots and a million other things, but it was baseball. It was a challenge to me to work hard because I knew everybody expected me maybe to come in a little lackadaisical, rest on my laurels. That wasn't about to happen. I can't guarantee what I'm going to do this year, but I've prepared myself like a champion."

One of the highlights of the winter, Rodriguez said, was the time he spent with Derek Jeter, the Yankees' rookie of the year shortstop, who is 22. "I love Derek like a brother," Rodriguez said. " We respect each other an awful lot."

One of their frequent topics of conversation was something not directly related to baseball. "That's the hardest things for either of us to figure out - girls," Rodriguez said. "It's really hard. Trying to meet somebody you can trust. I don't know how you do it. I'm open for suggestions. That's not my area."

And there aren't any tapes he can watch to make it his area.



CAN HE DO IT AGAIN?

Alex Rodriguez proved that you don't have to be experienced to make a difference in people's lives. On July 27, 1996 (Rodriguez's 21st birthday), when the Mariners signed their brilliant young shortstop to a four-year contract extension, team president Chuck Armstrong called Rodriguez "the brightest young star in baseball, both on and off the field."

That season, Rodriguez established all-time highs at his position in runs, hits, doubles, extra-base hits, and slugging percentage while setting Mariner records in runs, doubles, average, hits, and total bases. His .358 mark was the highest by a right-handed hitter in 57 years, his 54 doubles led the American League, and his 36 homers were the eighth-highest ever for s shortstop. And it was only his first full season!

Last season, he "slumped" to .300 with 23 homers, 84 RBIs, 40 doubles, and 176 hits despite suffering bruised ribs in June in a collision with Toronto's Roger Clemens. Rodriguez missed two weeks, then resumed playing. "That might have been a mistake," he said. "I wasn't able to throw the ball the way I should or swing the bat even 70 percent. I was playing hurt, but I wanted to play."

He exhibits that same drive off the field. "You take every day and try to be the best person you can," he said.

That's why he donated a baseball field to the Boys & Girls Club in Miami, where he spent a lot of time growing up. In Seattle, he established an educational program called Grand Slam for Kids.

When invited to speak at Wing Luke Elementary School in Seattle last January, he told a packed gymnasium to focus on education, be responsible, and respect others. In May he treated 200 kids to a Mariner game. "He is a wonderful man," Wing Luke principal Ellen Punyon said.

And a wonderful shortstop.



HE'LL BE BACK

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 punctuates 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 to 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.



MARINERS UPDATE: Case of missing suitcase is solved

Paul Sorrento was still mystified that his suitcase sat in the hotel room of teammate Alex Rodriguez for two days this week - and that Rodriguez never got around to mentioning it.

For two full days, Sorrento wore the same outfit to and from the ballpark, while the Mariners equipment manager scrambled to find out how a bag could get lost when no one other than the team and baggage handlers had touched it.

Turns out, Sunday night the Cleveland hotel bellhops had the bag, they simply delivered it to Rodriguez, not Sorrento.

"How does he not mention that?" Sorrento said, feigning anger Wednesday.

Once he heard the answer, Sorrento as even more perplexed. "I noticed it right away," Rodriguez said. "And I remember thinking, 'I'll get to that,' but I just never did. Hey, he got five hits last night - he ought to leave his suitcase in my room all the time."



RODRIGUEZ FINALLY FINDS A PLACE TO RELAX

One look and it is obvious which player is happiest to be in the Seattle Mariner training camp. The man exuding maximum delight and the heartthrob smile is Alex Rodriguez. Twenty quick miles after landing at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, he is in the clubhouse and getting dressed to work out, even as everyone else is coming in from the day's practice.

"I couldn't wait. I came straight out here," Rodriguez said yesterday. "I only stopped for a sub sandwich. I was starving from the plane ride." As his teammates come in, major-leaguers and roster prospects with whom he played in the minors for varying periods - all brief - on his rocket rise through the organization, there are smiles all around. "I don't know anyone who doesn't like Alex," said Raul Ibanez, a 1994 teammate at Appleton, Wis., for two months. "You knew he was a No. 1 pick and got a nice contract and would go to the majors quick. But he was good with everyone, just one of the guys on the club."

Catchers Dan Wilson and John Marzano get hugs and back slaps. There are many handshakes. "Alex . . ." Marzano said in mock disgust, ". . . always running for mayor." Norm Rice is probably lucky Rodriguez hasn't.

Then again, Rodriguez hasn't had time for it. "I call him in Miami one day," Marzano said. "They tell me Alex is in Japan. I call back a week later, he's out making six commercials. The guy was never home." Marzano's needle is a bull's eye. Far from a winter of discontent, it was a winter of this continent, then that, for the young Seattle shortstop, whose big 1996 season drew big demands for his attention.

"This is the first time, the first place, I've felt at peace in months," Rodriguez said. "We must have turned down 80 to 85 percent of the requests, and I was constantly on the move. My respect for J.R. (as Alex calls Ken Griffey Jr.) - I see what his life is almost always like and I didn't like it. No wonder he shut it down this offseason." Rodriguez allowed that Griffey had warned him that his life would not be his own unless he were firm. He did mostly charity events and promotions, such as filming a commercial for the United Way. He also appeared at the ESPY Awards banquet for ESPN.

"I was in New York more than I was in Seattle," he said. "I was in Japan for 11 days, and that was long; that was a long way away, too. I was in Jamaica for a week. Those were the longest periods I was in one place at a time. I was hardly home."

Griffey walked in at that moment. Like Rodriguez, he is in uniform two days before he has to be. The two shook hands and Rodriguez smiled and shook his head. "I told you," Griffey said. "I told you what it would be like." "I was just saying that," Rodriguez said. "This winter was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. I feel good, but I don't feel rested. Next year it will be different."

Griffey said his winter was different, too. He stayed close to Orlando, where his new house is nearing completion. He was in Seattle once, in California for one celebrity golf event and in Jamaica with Rodriguez at the annual get-together for Nike-endorsed athletes.

"My appointments were mostly calling over to the country club to double-check on my tee times," Griffey said, a fake phone pantomimed to his ear. "Hello? Noon? Fine. I may catch a little more sleep. Thank you." Everyone laughed, Rodriguez among them. "My golf game was ruined," he said. "Something had to go. I had to keep up with my workouts, keep all the commitments we made. I just about gave up golf." Marzano asked if Rodriguez wanted to join him working out in the weight room. Rodriguez agreed, but asked a favor: "Play catch with me for five minutes first." Marzano frowned. He had just come in from three hours on the practice field. "I don't know, Alex," Marzano said, feigning reluctance. "All the things I do for you. . . . I mean, I go on the Mariner caravan around the Northwest this winter and I wind up answering all these questions about you. We try to talk baseball, and all the girls want to know is, `What's Alex really like?' "

Rodriguez smiled, whipped a Titleist cap onto his head, put his baseball mitt on his left hand and headed, at a canter, for the door. He is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, but apparently can't be happier than to be going out to play some ball. "A chance to relax, at last," he said, tossing back one more smile. "I've learned so much, I guess I've got to learn how to say no."