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A-Rod and Jeter: Rewind
By Alan Schwarz
A lot has been said and written already about the dynamic of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, how their long friendship can survive Rodriguez’ arrival in New York and Jeter’s (implicit) insistence on staying at shortstop, moving A-Rod to third. Each of them has been saying the right things about the situation, their media savvy invaluable.
What was their friendship like when playing together was but a pipe dream? I got a glimpse in June 1997, when I sat down for what became one of the only (if not the only) print interviews of the young pair together, spending 45 minutes with them in a room underneath Yankee Stadium. Both shortstops had burst on the baseball scene the previous summer, Rodriguez by hitting .358-36-123 and Jeter by winning the Rookie of the Year award and his first World Series. But what made the interview cool was that these kids -- just 21 and 22 at the time -- were best friends, on and of the field. The interview became one of my favorites, because I could sit back and let them joke around, taking it where they wanted.
Now that Rodriguez and Jeter are teammates, fans everywhere are wondering about how their relationship will continue. Here’s a verbatim view of where it was many years ago.
ALAN SCHWARZ: When did you guys first meet?
JETER: Back in ’76, huh?
RODRIGUEZ: It was earlier. When were we born?
JETER: No, really, we met over the phone. What were you, a senior?
RODRIGUEZ: I was a senior, yeah. 1993. Your first year of pro ball.
JETER: We had a mutual friend. No one you’d know. Alex had called and was asking about his last year of high school, because I’m a year older than him. Things about the draft. That’s how we initially met.
And then, at a University of Miami baseball game. They were playing Michigan. I went to the game in Miami with Jim Abbott and Scott Kamieniecki in my first spring training. We saw each other there. That was the first time we met face to face.
SCHWARZ: Do you guys talk during the season?
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. A few times a week. We share a lot of the same interests. We have a lot of similarities, being young shortstops in the league. We share a lot of the same demands on us. I actually admire what he does, how he goes about his business. More importantly, he’s a great player, but he’s a great person as well. The first thing when I wake up in the morning, I check the box score to see how Derek Jeter did. I’ll ask my mom, ‘How’s Derek doing?’ because she’s on the East Coast and whatever. A lot of times when we’re ready to go out on the field, when our game starts, the Yankee game’s always on TV. So I’m there watching him.
SCHWARZ: Do you crash together when your teams play each other?
JETER: Here’s how it goes: When he comes to New York, I open my door. “Alex, watcha need? Come on in, you can stay with me. My house is your house.” When I go to Seattle, I don’t get the same respect.
RODRIGUEZ: Now, he’s talking about last year. In Seattle, I had a one-bedroom. I was on a very small budget. I had a one-bedroom the size of this table. And my mom was in town. Six people were there. I said, “Derek, you can come sleep on the floor or whatever, ‘cause that’s the kind of friend I am.”
This year, I’ve got a two-bedroom. So when he comes in, next time, he can stay over.
SCHWARZ: Is it the mark of the modern athlete and the way they band together that you guys can be friends, when maybe 50 years ago, you’re not allowed to fraternize with the enemy?
JETER: On the field, there’s a rivalry between New York and Seattle. But I’m Alex’ biggest fan. Like he says, every morning I check the stats, watch him on TV. But off the field, we’re friends. We hang out, do whatever we want to do. People say, “How are you that close if you compete all the time?” But off the field we’re just like regular people.
SCHWARZ: Who’s the better basketball player?
JETER: He plays more. He’s got me.
RODRIGUEZ: But he’s got more hops. He can dunk better.
SCHWARZ: With you guys being so successful so fast, and being as young as you are, your roles in baseball are not just on the field. You’ve been thrust into other roles, like “savior.” How do you see your jobs beyond just hitting and catching the ball?
RODRIGUEZ: For me, I truly believe my job starts the minute I leave the baseball field. Going out and catching ground balls and hitting, that’s a job, and that’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. But when you think about leaving that field, that’s when the job and the demands really start. In New York, Seattle, every city. The community, the media, business stuff. You have to stay on a narrow path.
SCHWARZ: Derek, you’re one of the few New York ballplayers to actually live in Manhattan. When you leave your apartment, are you besieged by girls like you are at the ballpark?
JETER: The fans are great. We won the World Series, and they treat us like kings. I don’t have any complaints. They’ve been good to me. The extra stuff is no problem.
SCHWARZ: Which of you has gotten more marriage proposals?
RODRIGUEZ: World Series? New York? It’s not even close.
SCHWARZ: You’re both very close to your families. Has that become more difficult over the past year?
RODRIGUEZ: My mom used to live with me until not many months ago, but to say she’s not living with me now wouldn’t be completely true. She lives about 10 minutes from me. She’s always in my house, cooking and doing stuff. I’m lost without her.
I was almost forced out of my house in Miami because I really didn’t fit in there anymore. I was living there for eight years. You move around, collect all these things, and before you know it your clothes are hanging out the window . . .
JETER: See, he’s collecting all his trophies and all that stuff. So his ma kicked him outta the house.
RODRIGUEZ: And for tax purposes I needed a house. . . .
SCHWARZ: Your lives have changed so much since your high school days. Has it been hard to handle everything that seems to have happened so fast? Is it a constant juggling act or have you been able to just make it part of your lives?
JETER: Baseball’s a humbling sport. In baseball, one day you can go out and go 5-for-5, hit two home runs—not me, but Alex—and the next day you can go 0-for-5. You can be on top of the world one minute and the bottom the next. So I don’t think it’s a sport that’s hard to deal with in terms of success. You have to fail to succeed anyway.
SCHWARZ: Now Alex, year last year had almost all success in it. It was probably the best year ever for a shortstop. How do you improve on that?
RODRIGUEZ: Many ways. You can never be perfect in this game. Until you hit 1.000 and make no errors, you can always improve. Derek last year had Rookie of the Year and the World Series, but there’s so much more he can do. As Derek says, there’s so much you can do from one day to the next. One day you’re up, up, up and the next day you’re down.
JETER: We talk a lot with each other. Like we said before, we have similar situations. I look at what Alex does, and I’ve got a long way to get to where he is. That keeps me going.
SCHWARZ: How have veteran teammates reacted to your success and your fame? Derek, specifically, Cecil Fielder once quipped to you, “You not like us regular people. You a star.” What’s the dynamic in the clubhouse when a young guy gets so big?
JETER: We have so many stars on our team. I’m in the background. We’ve got David Cone, Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill. I’m coming way at the bottom end.
SCHWARZ: That isn’t really true. You’ve been described, almost matter-of-factly, as the most popular athlete in New York.
JETER [sternly]: Nah. I’ve got a long way go to be in their category.
SCHWARZ: Well Alex, you are in the bona fide, top-of-the-line, star category. You can’t say what he said. How do your teammates handle the rush?
RODRIGUEZ: Anytime you have a young guy come in with a lot of notoriety, all this stuff, they’re going to be skeptical to a certain degree. But I think if you go out and play every day, you play hard, you respect the game, and you respect your teammates, things will be fine.
I have some real veterans on my team—Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr. They’ve all put in their time. Derek and I have only done it for one year. And one year does not make a career like David Cone’s had or Randy Johnson’s had. Or two years. So for us to be counted as genuine stars, we have a lot more that we need to do and want to do and that we’re working to do, for us to be in that category. So he’s right. We’re both in the background. It’s nice that people are starting to promote us, but we have to earn our keep.
SCHWARZ: How do you do that? How do you earn your keep?
JETER: Over a long period of time. No way, one year. We could do bad one or two years and they’ll forget us.
SCHWARZ: Alex, you once told Derek, “I don’t envy you, man, playing in New York.” Can you explain that?
RODRIGUEZ: I’m from New York originally. I love New York. And it’s kind of ironic, really, that here’s a kid from a big city, Miami, who’s now playing up in Seattle, and the guy from the smaller place—Derek being from Kalamazoo—who’s playing in New York. But I knew he was going to be very successful. The first minute I saw him, and the time we spent in the Rookie Development Program, he said, “I love New York.” I knew then he’d be all right. A lot of people want to shy away from New York and don’t want to play there.
SCHWARZ: Are you one of those people?
RODRIGUEZ: I love it in Seattle. It’s a good way for me to kind of sneak up on people. The attention’s not there constantly. I think I’d love playing in New York, Boston, one of these big cities. But I think it’s a little easier for me in Seattle. It’s better for me there.
JETER: I think the difference between New York and other cities is that the change can be so dramatic. The media attention here is so much. But I love New York. We won the World Series my first year. That’s all I know. Like I said, though, we’ve been treated like kings.
SCHWARZ: What does the future hold for Alex Rodriguez? What do you see?
RODRIGUEZ: Hopefully, what Derek has: a world championship. I want that very bad. I would trade everything about my year for what he had.
SCHWARZ: And Derek, what do you see in your future?
JETER: Hopefully the opportunity to play for a long time. I like playing baseball. I like playing in New York. I love winning championships, so hopefully we can win some more. There’s nothing better than that. Especially in New York.
SCHWARZ: Alex said he wants what you had. Do you want what he has?
JETER: I think everyone wants what he has. Last year, he should’ve won the MVP. That’s my opinion. I’m a little biased—he’s a friend of mine. But what he did, no one’s ever done before. If you can’t win the MVP doing that, what do you have to do? As a shortstop, what do you have to do?