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Posted: Thursday September 11, 2008 12:23PM; Updated: Friday September 12, 2008 1:28AM
Arash Markazi Arash Markazi >
ON THE SCENE

The magic and mystery of K-Rod (cont.)

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Francisco Rodriguez/SI
Rodriguez surprises many by being calm and laid-back off the field, the opposite of his demonstrative on-field persona.
Mike Powell/SI

There is a quiet calm in Rodriguez's voice as he speaks. In the clubhouse, where he mostly keeps to himself, he is the antithesis of the fist-pumping, arm-waving, sky-pointing K-Rod seen on the field. "When [people] get to know me, they realize that I'm not the same person they see on the field," he says. "People think on the field that I'm arrogant and aggressive but I'm a different person off the field. I hear so many people say that I'm a prick or whatever but when they see me outside they say, 'Oh I'm sorry, I thought you had the same personality off the field as you do on it.' It's not that way at all. It's the opposite."

He admits he almost doesn't recognize himself on the mound when he sees his highlights, his demonstrative actions going against everything else he does when he leaves the field. "I become a different person on the field, that's my job, but when I'm off it, I'm a regular guy," he says. "If people don't believe that I can't do anything about that."

Nevertheless, if it seems that Rodriguez is cocky or arrogant on the mound, it's because he is. "It's that arrogance that I have on the field that you can't hit me," he says with a grin, his inner K-Rod coming out. "I want the hitter to hit the pitch that I want them to hit. I feel like I'm messing with them." Indeed, with his arsenal of pitches -- a curveball, fastball that regularly hits 95 mph and a change-up he's been incorporating since last season -- Rodriguez frequently makes batters look silly.

Rodriguez's signature pitch is as difficult to hit as it is to categorize. It's a pitch so distinctive, so devastating that it should really have its own name. Even Rodriguez has a difficult time finding a name for it, settling on calling what most refer to as his slider a "hard curve ball," before explaining his rationale. "The thing is, I throw it so hard and throw it with the same amount of speed as a slider that people call it a slider but its really hard curve ball," he says. "I really can't explain it. It's something I think I was born to do. I've been blessed to be able to pitch; I've been blessed with this arm."

The gift comes from the fact that Rodriguez naturally throws from different arm angles, a skill some pitching coaches unsuccessfully try to teach their pitchers to confuse batters. While a student of the game, Rodriguez has a difficult time explaining what he does and an even harder time teaching it to others. "It's difficult to teach what I do ... sometimes other players will ask you how to do something [and] honestly I don't know," he says. "It's a gift. It comes naturally to me so I don't know how to explain it. I've been throwing that way since I was nine years old and I've been improving ever since."

Rodriguez's superb season is a major reason why the Angels are on the verge of clinching their fourth AL West title in the past five seasons and why he will certainly garner big money on the open market when he files for free agency after the season. "I really don't know what's going to happen with me at all, I mean at all," says Rodriguez, who wishes the Angels would have offered him a fair long-term deal last winter instead of taking him to arbitration, which they won, paying him $10 million this season instead of $12.5 million. "I don't want to be a distraction so I'm not going to say anything one way or the other but when the time comes to worry about that I will."

As Rodriguez's name is called before another save opportunity at Angel Stadium, he hops out of the bullpen runs to the mound and grabs hold of the baseball lying on the grass. As he picks it up and rolls it around in his right hand and looks at Angels catcher Jeff Mathis kneeling some 60 feet away, he does the same thing he did when he first picked up a ball back in Venezuela and threw it at his uncles, lifting his left leg before firing a dart with no regard for his flailing arm or his catcher's hand. Except now the ball actually reaches its target and he's able to make the ball do just about anything he wants on the way there, including, as his predecessor as Angels closer, Troy Percival, joked, "throw that Bugs Bunny pitch that goes, stops in front of the plate and goes again."

Rodriguez can't explain how he does what he does. Then again how many kids in the park who've just hit that imaginary last second shot can? Sometimes it's just better not to know, and to just enjoy the show and the subsequent celebration instead, no matter how many times you've seen it before.

 
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