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Friday, June 4, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Can M's Reel In Rodriguez? -- Shortstop Is No. 1 Draft Pick; Now Comes Hard Part

Their man - and 17-year-old Alex Rodriguez is said to have that kind of maturity - got the Mariners, who made him the No. 1 pick in the country.

Now, can the Mariners get their man?

Undaunted by storm warnings that would make a Puget Sound sailor stay home, the Seattle club followed its heart and the advice of every baseball man who has scouted Rodriguez, the shortstop from Westminster Christian High School in Miami.

"I originally wanted us to go for the college relief pitcher," Mariner Manager Lou Piniella said of Darren Dreifort, the Wichita State right-hander rated a notch below Rodriguez but easily above the rest of the players. "Then I saw films of the shortstop (Rodriguez). He's a man among boys out there. Wow! No way we could pass on him."

Pass? That's what the Mariners hope Rodriguez doesn't do to them.

In addition to knowing nothing about Seattle, Rodriguez wants to play in the National League and has signed a letter of intent with the University of Miami to play shortstop - and quarterback. "I was more heavily recruited for football than baseball," he said during a conference call yesterday.

The Mariners' basic problem is where Rodriguez's heart lies. Can the Mariners throw enough money across the country to sign him?

"It won't be easy," said Roger Jongewaard, Mariner director of scouting, who kept pushing within the Seattle organization to pass up Dreifort, who went to Los Angeles with the No. 2 pick. "It could be a long summer."

Jongewaard will enter negotiations with the backing of the organization, starting at the top. "We'll get the man we want," said Chris Larson, one of the key owners, before the pick was announced.

"We know what we're getting into," President Chuck Armstrong said. "I'm sure before we're done Roger, Woody (General Manager Woody Woodward) and myself will eat our share of stone crabs visiting southern Florida to get Rodriguez signed."

Rodriguez supposedly has more tools than the guy on Home Improvement - speed, hands, arm, power, effort and ethic. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder grades out better than Seattle center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. did six years ago and is compared to Cincinnati's Barry Larkin and Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr.

The Mariners made sure before deciding. Nine team officials or scouts saw Rodriguez play in Florida, and three more scouts watched him excel in a tournament in California. In addition, two minor-league infield instructors went to see.

"It was simple," said senior scout George Zuraw, a Florida native who saw Rodriguez four times. "He was the one."

Negotiations unofficially started when Rodriguez, who made the pages of Sports Illustrated and USA Today as well as the top line of every team's draft wish list, spoke recently about how serious he was about becoming a Hurricane.

The Mariners have drafted someone who would have preferred that the Dodgers take him No. 2. Los Angeles trains nearby in Vero Beach, Fla, and plays in Miami against the Marlins.

"I had thought I'd like to play with a National League team," Rodriguez said. "With spring training and all, it seemed best. But once I'm a Mariner, I'll be proud to be a Mariner and I'll do the best I can to represent those guys. I hope things work out."

"I would have liked to play if front of my family," he said. "But baseball is a business. Hopefully, someday I'll have enough money to let my family come and see me play."

He sounded distant about Seattle, just what you'd expect from someone who uses umbrellas for shade. "I've heard it's a great city, but I haven't heard much about it," he said. "I know Ken Griffey Jr. plays for the Mariners."

Rodriguez, used to being a calm in the eye of attention, handled the questions about as well as scouts say he handles a bat in the clutch.

His distance was not all AT&T. He kept an emotional game face on.

"It's a great honor to be No. 1," he said. "I'm willing to see what's going to happen. I feel a big decision coming up . . . I'm very excited about college. College is my preference. I'm hungry to play, college or pro, but every day I don't sign is another I'm going to college."

Rodriguez's perspective may be normal for someone scrutinized by 20 scouts at his first outing this year. Not his first game. "First scrimmage," he explained. "Practice."

He said he'll have an agent-adviser in a week or two. "But negotiations will not be just about money," Rodriguez said. "There are a lot of things involved and we'll keep everything in perspective. It will be a family decision."

Rodriguez denies reports that he wants $1.5 million, equal to the record the Yankees handed first-rounder Brien Taylor two years ago. Baltimore made Stanford's Jeffrey Hammond the highest-paid draft choice last year, $975,000.

"I haven't even considered money," Rodriguez said, with a touch of sarcasm for the guessing game already begun. "I've read some things about how much money I want and I haven't even thought about what I want."

Nothing that Jongwaard heard, before the draft or since, has changed his mind about picking and pursuing what some are calling a once-in-a-generation player.

"We weren't about to change for anything I can think of," Jongewaard said. "We weren't going to change because of talk of money or agents or anything like that. When you have the first pick with a clear opportunity to get the best, you get the best. Rodriguez was the best."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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