By Alan Schwarz
ARLINGTON, TexasIt was mid-March in Port Charlotte, Fla., an hour or so after yet another spring training game. Rangers players had already showered and changed and zipped off in their tinted SUVs for the evening. The minor league managers and hitting coaches, meanwhile, gathered in one of the batting cages with assistant general manager Grady Fuson for an organizational pow-wow.
Sitting on unfolded metal chairs, overturned buckets of balls and even cross-legged on the matted turf, the dozen or so staff members spoke about teaching farmhands plate discipline. Getting a good pitch to hit. Taking pitches to force the bullpen. About 40 minutes in, Rudy Jaramillo, the major league clubs hitting coach, walked by with a player hed been throwing BP to in another cage. The two quietly sat down to listen in. The player was Alex Rodriguez.
He sat his $252 million behind on the ground"With the rest of the $30,000 grunts," Fuson recalls in amazementand just listened, without a word, for a half hour. Only then did he literally raise his hand, as if a deferential schoolboy, and ask if he could share his outlook and theories. He spoke about pitch selection, about grinding starters down. About the difference between first-pitch hacking and first-pitch swinging. He squatted there for the rest of the two-hour meeting, speaking only when spoken to, just another Rangers employee.
Fuson shook his head and wondered, "How good is this?"
How good is it? Good enough to become one of the many reasons why Baseball America chose Alex Rodriguez as its 2002 Major League Player of the Year. Needless to say, hes got the stats: 57 home runs and 142 RBIs to lead the major leagues, with a .300 average to boot. All as a shortstop, one whose offense often overshadows just what an asset he is defensively, as well.
For all the hoo-ha surrounding his contract, Rodriguez, still only 27 and probably just entering his prime, has become all the major leagues could ask from a star player: performance, preparation, personality. Perfect? No. To validate his overall package he probably must lead his team to a World Series, something that doesnt seem particularly imminent for the last-place Rangers.
But Rodriguez is doing more than most recognize, a great deal of it behind the scenes, to help that happen. "Hes a baseball guy," Narron says, "who just happens to be the most talented player in the world."
Rodriguez contractperhaps youve heard about itwill always serve as an undertow, an inescapable notoriety. One American League executive acknowledges this when he speaks of Rodriguez defense: "Unlike Derek Jeter, hes gotten better every year. Hes clearly above-average now in every respect defensivelydouble plays, range, everything. I give him a ton of credit for that. Its clearly a result of hard work. The shame is hell never get credit for it, because people dont want to give credit to someone making 25 million dollars."
Knowing he has little wiggle room between arrogance and diffidence, Rodriguez tries to describe his efforts as what any high-profile player would do. "I dont do things to make a splash about my work ethic or what people may think," he says. Splash no, but ripple yes: Since he was 17 Rodriguez has savvily honed his public image and brand awareness by saying all the right things at all the right times. Nonetheless, he has played the role of Big Deal about as well as could be asked, and often better.
Whether people want to hear it or not, no star in baseball today takes the interest in his organization that Rodriguez does. (Good ideahes signed through at least 2007.) The notion that Rodriguez would be a "24-and-1" playera dart thrown by Mets GM Steve Phillips while dismissing him on the free-agent market two offseasons ago, suggesting Rodriguez would alienate teammatesis as wrong now as the day the phrase left Phillips lips.
Part of that is relating to young players in ways that other highly paid stars might not. On his own club, Rafael Palmeiro has never been particularly gregarious, and Ivan Rodriguez always carried the baggage of attitude questions. Narron played with Reggie Jacksons Yankees and Angels and coached for Cal Ripkens Orioles, and recalls neither star, because of either self-absorption or simple quietude, being the approachable teammate Rodriguez is.
"My biggest pride is when kidsits funny, theyre like two years younger than mewhen they come to me and ask a question, because that means they have the comfort level to ask me anything about anything," Rodriguez says. "I think for your teammates to have the confidence to ask you a question, or kid you or razz you, I think thats the best part of leadershipwhen they can feel like were all one."
Rookie outfielder Kevin Mench says Rodriguez pulled him aside at various points this year to emphasize how taking pitches helps the team as a whole. He worked with rookie third baseman Hank Blalock on hot-corner positioning, and when he noticed the kid didnt have any sharp road-trip clothes, gave him several Armani outfits.
Rodriguez works for an extra hour each spring training day on one specific aspect of the gamedown-and-away sliders, DP pivots and the likeand during the season gets even more specialized. Narron recalls seeing Rodriguez in the field one batting-practice afternoon working on diving for ground balls and scrambling to just one knee before heaving the ball to first.
"The next night he makes a diving catch to his right, gets on one knee and throws the guy out," Narron says. "It was uncanny. It was like hed seen the play come up in his mind and knew he had to work at it."
Rodriguez occasionally sits at home charting games off television to get an extra edge, and Fuson sees the knowledge evincing itself in his success on first pitches. "You cant figure it out when youre up," Fuson says. "Youve got to have a plan when youre walking up there." Though hitters generally have better statistics when swinging at the first pitch, Rodriguez numbers are downright unreal: In two years with the Rangers, covering 125 such at-bats, he has hit .440-20-50 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of about 1.500.
Lefthander C.J. Nitkowski, 29, spent just a month with Rodriguez after being called up in August and says he learned new pitch sequences from him and employed them successfully in games. "He could call pitches from shortstop," Nitkowski says. "I played with Barry Larkin in 1995 with the Reds, and he had the numbers to be the MVP but he got it as much because he was such a team guy, and he made the team better. Alex does the same exact stuff that Larkin did, and with better numbers.
"He could manage from shortstop. Im seriousif they asked him to run the team, he could do it from shortstop."
Some Rangers observers would bristle at that notion, as Rodriguez already has plenty of influence on the clubby virtue of his contract, as well as his being the middle man in the Scott Boras-Tom Hicks joint agent-owner venture otherwise known as the Rangers roster. Moreover, eyebrows vaulted when Hicks formed a golf foursome among himself, GM John Hart, Fuson and one playerRodriguezbut Rodriguez contends he played golf with Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln far more often, without the contract inviting such scrutiny.
Hicks downplays Rodriguez influence on personnel decisions, saying he merely offers opinionsnot to mention some of that contractto help the team improve. "I called him last winter and said we had a chance to sign Chan Ho Park," Hicks says. "I asked if hed be willing to defer $6 million at two percent interest payable after eight or nine years. He right then said, Count me in. We asked some of the other playersI wont discuss whoif they wanted to help out, and they didnt want to."
Rodriguez puts an optimistic face on the Rangers current direction, despite two last-place finishes, and he could be correct. Texas did go 52-52 against teams out of the ridiculously strong AL West and its farm system highlighted by slugger Mark Teixeira and a promising group of armsshould make an impact by 2004. The rebuilding should be hastened by the hiring of manager Buck Showalter, who helped develop the mid-1990s Yankees clubs and the quickly contending Diamondbacks.
"I look at myself like Bernie Williams was in the early 1990s with the Yankees," Rodriguez says. "He didnt win for a while. They had a very active owner. He had the financial commitment. Once they were able to turn the page and do what they did with Gene Michael and Mark Newman and who they started listening to, thats how they turned it around. I hope thats where we are."
With Bonds off the schneid this October, Rodriguez has probably overtaken Ernie Banks as the best player never to appear in a World Series. Banks, a Hall of Fame shortstop himself, calls Rodriguez "the best shortstop to ever play the game," and knows a thing or two about starring on poor teams.
"I always felt that I was just another playerIm not better than you," Banks says. "Great players like to share the spotlight with other players: Fergie (Jenkins), you pitched a great game, come over here, or Billy (Williams), you got the sacrifice fly to give us the lead. You get everybody involved. You always think about the other person, the game, the bigger picture."
Baseball America has chosen to look at the bigger picture as well by selecting Rodriguez as its Player of the Year. This Ranger rides alone.
2002 Major League All-Stars
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