Rodriguez says tears welled up in his eyes as he signaled for Griffey to slide. As his teammates joined him in the celebration at the plate, Rodriguez knew he was part of something special. The series victory was the highlight of his baseball career.
"It's kind of ironic, isn't it?" he says. "At first, I didn't want to play in Seattle. Now I can't imagine playing anywhere else. This is the perfect place for me."
The current class of young, highly touted shortstops is a tight fraternity. In high school Rodriguez lived five minutes from his friend Alex Gonzalez, the current Toronto Blue Jays shortstop. In the off-season Rodriguez worked out at his alma mater, Westminster Christian High School in Miami, with Rey Ordonez, the New York Mets rookie who defected from Cuba three years ago. Last January, Rodriguez spent time at an orientation camp for young players with the Yankees' Derek Jeter.
When Rodriguez checks out all the big league box scores each morning, he pays special attention to the progress of his shortstop buddies. "I talked to Derek the last time we played, and I just said, 'I don't envy you, man, playing in New York,' " says Rodriguez. "He says, 'Hey, I like New York. If you can get it done here, you can get it done anywhere.' But I don't know. I used to be the biggest Mets fan in the world, when they had Doc [Gooden] and Darryl [Strawberry] and [Gary] Carter. But I love Seattle. It's got great fans, and it's an easy city to play in. I wouldn't trade places with Rey or Derek for anything in the world."
In Seattle, Rodriguez knows that he can always look across the clubhouse and follow the lead of Griffey. There isn't much pressure in Seattle to begin with, and as long as Griffey is around, he will deflect much of it. The comparisons between the two Mariners were inevitable; Rodriguez, predictably, has been handling them without a hitch.
"To me, Junior is just so special and so unique, I hate to hear any kind of comparisons," Rodriguez says. "It's an insult to him. He's the best. I can't wear his jock." Griffey says of Rodriguez, "He works hard, he's a smart kid, I think he's in the right situation. He just has to listen and learn the game. Everyone knows he's going to be a special player."
Rodriguez already has learned to shorten his swing and make more consistent contact. The one thing he has always disliked is the notion that a good fielding shortstop doesn't have to hit. "That's an insult," he says.
Seattle batting coach Lee Elia, a veteran of 13 seasons as a big league manager and coach, says Rodriguez's bat speed is as good as any he has ever seen. "I had Mike Schmidt in Philly, Don Mattingly in New York, Ryne Sandberg in Chicago," says Elia, "but I haven't seen too many guys who can get their bat through the hitting zone any faster than Alex. With his ability, there's no telling what he can accomplish."
Someday Rodriguez may bat .400 and hit 60 home runs, but for now he is doing the next best thing—he is living up to expectations. When you are the next Ripken, the next Junior, the next great player in the game, that is saying something. It's not going to be easy to act humble much longer.
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