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The Fairest of Them All
Gerry Callahan
July 08, 1996
When Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez looks in the mirror, he sees the best young player in baseball
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July 08, 1996

The Fairest Of Them All

When Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez looks in the mirror, he sees the best young player in baseball

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Prodigious Prodigy

Alex Rodriguez is on pace for a remarkable season: He will finish with a .341 batting average, 31 homers and 118 RBIs if he keeps hitting at his current rate. And he doesn't turn 21 until July 27. We took a look at the greatest performances ever by players who were not yet 21 on Opening Day and found out that Rodriguez is in very good company.

Player

Batting Avg.

Year

Player

Homers

Year

Player

RBIs

Year

Ty Cobb

.350

'07

Mel Ott

42

'29

Mel Ott

151

'29

Alex Rodriguez

.341

'96*

Frank Robinson

38

'56

Ted Williams

145

'39

Al Kaline

.340

'55

Tony Conigliaro

32

'65

Alex Rodriguez

118

'96*

Mel Ott

.328

'29

Alex Rodriguez

31

'96*

Ty Cobb

116

'07

Rogers Hornsby

.327

'39

Ted Williams

31

'39

Al Kaline

102

'55

SOURCE: Elias Sports Bureau.
*Stats through June 30, projected for 162 games

In the off-season he lives with his mother, Lourdes Navarro, and shares a bedroom with his best friend, a three-year-old German shepherd named Ripper. He plays golf each morning and hoops each evening, and by 10 p.m. he is nestled in bed with his Nintendo control pad. He makes Roy Hobbs look like John Kruk, and he makes you wonder if you're missing something: A guy this sweet has to be hiding some cavities.

On July 27, Alex Rodriguez will turn 21, making him old enough to have a beer with his Seattle Mariners teammates. He says he's not interested. "Can't stand the taste," he says. Rodriguez has always felt more at home among milk drinkers.

He grew up in the Miami suburb of Kendall with a poster of Cal Ripken Jr. over his bed and number 3 on the back of his baseball uniform, tribute to another of his idols, former Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy. "My mom always said, 'I don't care if you turn out to be a terrible ballplayer, I just want you to be a good person," says Rodriguez. "That's the most important thing to me. Like Cal or Dale Murphy, I want people to look at me and say, 'He's a good person.' "

Most people don't yet know what kind of person Rodriguez is, but they are quickly learning that as a ballplayer he's almost too good to be true. He is 6'3" and 195 pounds of pure skill and grace, an immensely gifted shortstop who routinely leaves baseball people drooling over their clipboards. He can run, hit, hit for power and make all the plays in the field. He's the youngest position player in the American League, but already he has turned his potential into performance. "He's the type of kid you build an organization around," says Seattle rightfielder Jay Buhner. And sure enough, when SI polled the general managers of the 14 teams in the American League and asked them what one player they would most like to have if they were starting an expansion team right now, Rodriguez got the most votes, with six. "Kids like him don't come around very often," says Buhner. "He's like [Ken Griffey] Junior. He does everything, and he does it effortlessly."

Rodriguez is the sweet-swinging, righthanded answer to Griffey. In fact, you might call him Junior Jr. At week's end Rodriguez was sixth in the league in hitting at .341 and had 15 home runs and 57 RBIs in just 63 games (he missed 13 games early in the season because of a pulled left hamstring muscle). He had committed only seven errors. After moving into the second spot in the batting order on May 8, ahead of Griffey, Edgar Martinez and Buhner, Rodriguez went on a tear, hitting .361 since then and making the Mariners' high-powered lineup even more frightening.

Rodriguez is a big reason Seattle, through Sunday, was still leading the league in runs scored despite the loss of Buhner for more than a week in June with a sprained thumb and the continuing absence of Griffey, who broke his hand on June 19. Says Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart of Rodriguez, "He's a big, physical shortstop like Ripken, but he's a better athlete. He probably has more power than Cal, and he might be a better all-around hitter."

"The way he's going, someday he might bat .400 and hit 60 home runs," says Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, never known for hyperbole. "He's the best young talent I've seen in years."

Rodriguez is also a devout Christian, a former honor roll student and a really sharp dresser. He calls his mother five times a week, gives all the credit for his success to his high school coach and shows an almost fawning respect for his veteran teammates. He doesn't just sign autographs for anyone who asks in the hotel lobby—he thanks the pests. He appears to be as flawless as a hot fudge sundae, so finally you ask one of his Mariners teammates if Rodriguez is on the level. Is he really this polite, this smart, this sweet, or am I being played like another Nintendo game?

"Well, he's definitely a good kid," says the teammate. "But you know all that stuff like, 'Oh, gee, I'm just happy to be in the big leagues?' Well, that's an act. Don't let him fool you. He knows how good he is. And he knows how good he's going to be."

You have to give the kid credit. It's not easy being humble when you're as talented as he is.

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