Hours before a Mariners game in early June, Griffey calls over his pal Buhner and proudly holds out a photograph as if it were a mint-condition Honus Wagner card. It's the latest snapshot of Griffey's eight-month-old daughter, Taryn, and Buhner, a father of three, offers the standard compliments. Rodriguez, standing a few feet away, edges closer and attempts to peek at the picture. Griffey reacts as if Rodriguez were trying to spy on his hand in a poker game.
"Hey, get out of here—this is grownup business!" says Griffey. "You're just a kid. Go do kid's stuff." Junior went through the same sort of initiation when he came up seven years ago as the 19-year-old prince of the Emerald City. Veterans Jeffrey Leonard and Alvin Davis didn't just step back and let Griffey take over the Seattle clubhouse. He had to earn their respect and camaraderie, and Lord knows he did. Junior proved he was even better than advertised and became arguably the best all-around player in the game.
Now it's Junior Jr.'s turn. Rodriguez was the first player chosen in the June 1993 draft. It took the Mariners nearly all summer to sign him. At times the negotiations turned ugly, with Rodriguez's family and his adviser, Scott Boras, allowing correspondence to take place only by fax. No face-to-face or telephone conversations were permitted, a stipulation that led some disgusted baseball fans to conclude that the inmates had officially seized control of the asylum. Just the fax? Who did this kid think he was?
Finally, on Aug. 30, just hours before Rodriguez was to begin classes at the University of Miami, he and the Mariners agreed to a three-year, $1.3 million contract. Now Rodriguez had to prove himself. In 1994, his first full season as a professional, he played at all four levels in the Mariners organization, including a month with the big club. He made his major league debut at 18—becoming just the third shortstop to do so since 1900—but hit only .204 in 17 games and was sent back to Calgary, which at that time was where the Mariners' Triple A team played. After the '94 season Rodriguez played winter league ball in the Dominican Republic, where he had spent part of his childhood. "It was the toughest experience of my life," Rodriguez says of his three months of winter ball, in which he batted only .179. "I just got my tail kicked and learned how hard this game can be. It was brutal, but I recommend it to every young player."
Rodriguez was born in New York City, but his parents moved to the Dominican Republic when he was four. His father, Victor, was a catcher in a Dominican pro league and introduced Alex to baseball. The family, which included Alex's older brother, Joe, and sister, Susy, moved back to the U.S. four years later, settling in Florida. When Alex was in fifth grade, his father left. Alex's mother raised him by herself, working as a secretary and a waitress to put him through private school. "I kept thinking my father would come back, but he never did," says Alex. "But it was O.K. All the love I had for him I just gave to my mother. She deserved it. Sometimes people ask why I still live at home, and I say, 'Why shouldn't I? I like living with my mother. She's one of my best friends.' "
When Rodriguez was drafted by Seattle, he looked at a U.S. map and thought, No way, too far. He was 17 years old and didn't like the idea of moving to the other corner of the country. But by the end of last season he realized how lucky he was. After bouncing back and forth between Triple A Tacoma and Seattle for most of the year—he ended up hitting .232 in 142 at bats with the Mariners—he was recalled to Seattle for the fourth and final time on Aug. 31. From that point on he served as the backup to shortstop Luis Sojo as the Mariners completed a historic comeback to win the American League West, outlasted the New York Yankees in an unforgettable first-round playoff series and finally were eliminated by the Indians in the league championship series. Rodriguez spent most of his time on the bench, an unusual vantage point for him, but he was having too much fun to complain.
"It was an awesome experience," he says. "I was 20 years old. It would have been ludicrous for me to think I should have been in there. I understood my role—I was there to pinch run or fill in if someone got hurt—and it didn't bother me at all."
Rodriguez played in just two games in the postseason, one against New York and another against Cleveland. He was hitless in two at bats. "I think he learned a lot just being around down the stretch last season," says Seattle manager Lou Piniella. "Even though we all knew he was our shortstop of the future, it wouldn't have been fair to the guys on the field or to Alex [to put him in the starting lineup]. Our veterans were doing a great job, and we were winning games."
Still, this was Alex Rodriguez, Junior Jr. Even at his age, he had to be as capable as the pedestrian Sojo. "Quite frankly, Alex was ready," says Piniella. "He just needed more at bats. But he's always had a great attitude. He's constantly asking questions and trying to improve. He's probably our fastest player right now. Unless, of course, Junior has to score from first to win the game."
No one has to describe to Rodriguez Junior's dramatic dash home from first base during last fall's playoffs—he had the best view in the Kingdome. The Mariners trailed the Yankees 5-4 with no outs in the 11th inning of Game 5 when Martinez roped a double into the leftfield corner. Joey Cora, who was on third base, scored easily but it appeared that Griffey, who was on first, would have to stop at third, leaving the season in the hands of the next batter, Rodriguez. But Griffey never broke stride and easily beat the throw to the plate to win the game and the series. Rodriguez would have to wait his turn to be a hero.