Rodriguez, Jeter Share Shortcuts To Success
by Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter
NEW YORK - They walk side-by-side across the green field that is Yankee Stadium and they look like brothers. They are similar in height and build, all grace and good looks. And in many ways, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter have become like brothers. "We are often mistaken for related, for brothers, when we're together," Rodriguez said. "And now, we spend a lot of time together. We've grown close, to be special friends."
Close enough that when the Yankees are in Seattle, Jeter stays at Rodriguez's Pike Place apartment. This weekend, Alex is bunking in Jeter's place in Manhattan.
"Real nice," he said. "Great view of the skyscrapers and the Hudson (River)." They also have grown, quickly, to be two of the best young players in baseball, standout shortstops at opposite ends of the country and the spectrum of lifestyle. While Rodriguez excels in Seattle, lauded as an MVP candidate, Jeter has developed into the leader for the award Alex can't ever win, Rookie of the Year.
"I don't care about that since I got to be on our playoff team last year, and I wouldn't have traded that experience for 10 rookie awards," Rodriguez said. "But since I can't, I'm rooting hard for D.J. (Jeter)." Were both running for the award, it would be something to see. As it is, they have a unique competition within the game.
"When I know I've hit a ball that D.J. might field, I go even harder," Rodriguez said. Jeter said, "I think we bring the best out in one another. I'm one of Alex's biggest fans. I talk about Alex around here, my own teammates tell me to shut up."
One who never hushes is Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, one of the few shortstops in the Hall of Fame. "I'm on record as saying Jeter is the best shortstop I've ever seen with the Yankees," he said. "But to see Rodriguez on the same field in this series is special." Rizzuto is awed by Rodriguez's strength. "Such a big kid," he said. "Both of them are big. I remember when shortstops were small, as if they had to be low to the ground to reach ground balls. But these two kids, both about 6-3 or so, are so fluid and quick, they're all over the place."
Their friendship began in 1993 when Rodriguez was 17 and about to be drafted in the first round as a prep shortstop from Miami, a year after the Yankees made Jeter, from Kalamazoo, Mich., the first prep player taken. "He had won the USA player of the year honors and so had I," Rodriguez explained. "More important to me, Derek won the Gatorade Award, for the top student-athlete and that's what drew the connection for me. He's smarter than me, though. He got 1200 in his SATs. I got 910. My reading comprehension held me back, because we speak only Spanish at home." Rodriguez tracked Jeter down in the Florida State League and started peppering him with questions about handling the draft and pro ball. "At first he did all the asking when we talked," Jeter said. "Now we ask each other's opinions. We share a lot."
"I respect D.J.'s thoughts," Rodriguez said. "His father is a doctor, his mother is an accountant, and he's really sensible about everything." New York is Rodriguez's birthplace, but he doesn't think he could play here. "It would be very tough for me here," he said. "But Derek is different. He handles people so well and you have to do that here. We were stuck in traffic leaving the stadium the other night - for half an hour. D.J.'s car was mobbed by people and he signed for everyone, every one of them for half an hour sitting in his car. Amazing."
Jeter also learned to laugh off the New York press' tabloid journalism. For instance, although he has played well, only committing 12 errors, after one game in which he made a costly poor throw, the back page of the Post exclaimed: "Shortslop!"
"It's a little different here," Jeter said with a smile. "But my mom is from New Jersey and when we used to visit there, my folks would bring me to Yankee Stadium for games. So playing in New York is like a dream come true for me."
The game and their games are the main topic when they are together, even when they go out to dinner as they did Saturday night. "We talk about how important baseball is to us," Rodriguez said. "We especially talk defense because that's what a shortstop's game should be all about. We agree we'd rather go hitless and make some good plays to help the team win than go 4 for 4 and lose. Nothing justifies an error." Jeter asks Rodriguez how to prepare for playing on artificial turf, on which he sometimes doesn't do as well.
"Take 1,000 ground balls the first day you're going to play on it," he is told. And Rodriguez asks how Jeter plays Kansas City speedster Tom Goodwin. "He told me he favors the backhand (right) side," Rodriguez said. "In fact, he told me he thinks that way on almost all batters. He said, `eExpect the worst.' The toughest play we have is backhand. Think that way, but be ready to go to the forehand."
For all their pride in defense, both are hitting well. Jeter has hit .400 since moving to leadoff two weeks ago and his .305 average and 51 RBI are good for most shortstops. Rodriguez, of course, has started out unlike most shortstops. He's the youngest of them ever to make an All-Star team, leading the league at .363. That, along with 28 home runs and 96 RBI, has given rise to the MVP talk.
"He's got my vote for it," Jeter said.
Rodriguez, apparently, is not out to buy that vote. When they went to dinner Saturday, Jeter was looking for Rodriguez to pick up the tab. The visitor suggested the All-Star Cafe, of which Ken Griffey Jr. is part owner. When it was pointed out that was a cheap date, Rodriguez confessed, "They didn't charge us."
"That's weak," Jeter protested. "He signs a big contract and suggests somewhere he knows we won't have to pay."