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Thursday, February 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Outstanding In Their Field? Cora, Rodriguez Meld Skills -- M's Infielders Work Early To Forge Double-Play Combo

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. - In the bright newness of every camp morning, hours before the trample of training tears it up, the infield dirt of the Seattle Mariners' main practice field carries just two sets of footprints.

The steps moving away from second base to the right, like a pattern on a lonely beach, are the small, light-footed leavings of Joey Cora.

Those leading left from the bag, toward shortstop, are bigger, longer, deeper, made by Alex Rodriguez.

When they reach their respective positions, they turn toward home plate, where new infield coach Steve Smith stands between home plate and the mound with a fungo bat and a bucket of baseballs.

By dawn's early light, they are forging a double-play combination - Cora working to break habits that made him inconsistent last year, Rodriguez working to break into everyday play and start on the path to stardom predicted for him.

"They are working hard," Smith said. "They are working every day on the field before most of the guys come into the clubhouse. When I ask them if they want to take a morning off, they just ask, `What time tomorrow?' "

Cora, who was in camp five days before any other regular, said, "If I wanted a day off I'd have stayed home in Puerto Rico."

The two have drawn close already. Fate put Rodriguez next to Cora on the bench at the end of the final game last season. Humanity put Rodriguez's long arm around Cora, consoling him as he cried.

"It just seemed natural," Rodriguez said. "It was unbelievable. I just kept telling him he was OK, he should be proud. He was one of the big reasons we got that far."

Now they are trying to make middle defense as natural.

For Cora this is a return to his pro roots. He's working with Smith, who managed him in the San Diego system - at Beaumont of the Texas League in 1986 and at Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League in 1988-89.

"It's great to be with him again," Cora said of Smith, who joined the Mariner organization in 1991 and came to Seattle when infield coach Sam Perlozzo went to Baltimore this winter. "He taught me so much. He knows me. I trust him."

Smith recalled Cora as part of an exceptional minor-league infield group with the Padres that included Roberto Alomar, Gary Green, Carlos Baerga and Mike Brumley.

"For a while, we had skinny little Joey at third base," Smith said with a smile. "Then Robbie Alomar got called up and we got Joey where he belonged, second base."

Over the years, Cora said he had "developed some bad habits." Last year, he would sometimes make a play with his quick glove, then hold the ball and make a late, hard throw. Combined with the slow-handedness of former first baseman Tino Martinez, that was a recipe for ruin.

Now, over and over every morning, Cora plays Smith's ground balls, brings his glove into his body, draws his throwing arm back, all while his feet perform baseball's infield dance, the crow step. The right foot moves in toward the left, plants, and the left foot moves to the side as the throw is delivered.

"The idea is to build consistency," Smith said. "The timing is the thing. The footwork is as important as anything you can do to give you rhythm."

The work on Rodriguez's game is much more subtle, because he appears to be a wonderful fielder, strong-armed and ranging to either side, long-legged but quick.

"But he's got some things we have to work on, too," Smith said. "With Alex, we're just trying to make good better."

At one point, young A-Rod, the name he sometimes uses to I.D. his equipment, is on his knees at the edge of the infield grass. He is not paying homage to some baseball god. He is working on a Smith drill to keep his glove and his butt down.

The glove is down, both hands low in front of him, as Smith skips another ball his way.

"Stay down," Smith says over and over. "Don't bring your glove up to play the ball until the last bounce. That way you can react to whatever bounce you get."

Noting good fielders never seem to get a bad hop, Smith says it's because of the quickness of their hands as they move to that last bounce.

"Always up," he says. "It's much easier to bring the glove up from near the ground than it is to get it down. And when you're down and stay down, the ball just can't get below your glove."

Rodriguez is on his feet. Smith stands 15 feet in front of him and tosses a series of quick one-hoppers to him. Rodriguez plays one off his right foot.

"Move left for that one," the coach orders. "The idea is to give yourself a chance to bring the glove up quickly but softly, using your elbow. You need to be able to move your arm up to your side, and if you have to reach over to the right when you bring up your elbow, you just jam yourself in the belly. Then you have to raise your shoulder to bring up your hands, and you simply can't move your shoulder as quickly as you can your elbow."

Later, Rodriguez smiles. "And I thought I knew how to play shortstop," said the kid who was a first pick in the country because of the potential to play shortstop. "I want to be known as a good major-leaguer, and good major-leaguers work to become good."

Is he ready for this? Is this the time so many have waited for since he signed in 1993 after a wrangled holdout for which a grievance still is pending?

"I'm ready," Rodriguez said fervently. "I'm ready for anything. I feel like I've been through everything. This is the day I've been waiting for since I can remember and I'm not going to waste it."

There really is nowhere else left for him to play. He has excelled at every level of the farm system - batting .319 at Class A Appleton, .288 at Class AA Jacksonville, .311 at Class AAA Calgary, then .360 at Tacoma last season, a year that included five moves between Class AAA and the big leagues.

"I feel like I went through the minors with straight A's," he said. "But I got a C in the big leagues. It's time to set the record straight in the majors, too."

There is an anxiousness to this process of naming him the shortstop. The future is suddenly present, and for all the promise, there is the reality that he hit .204 when he was rushed to Seattle in 1994 and .232 last year.

"We're not giving Rodriguez the job," Manager Lou Piniella said. "But it's his to lose. There is reason to believe he will handle it, but with young players you don't see fruition until they believe they belong. On top of that, we have a division pennant to defend and defense to improve. We were dead last, 28th, in the league in double plays, and that has to get better."

The pas de deux with Cora, the Swan Lake of the double play, will come, Rodriguez promises.

"Joey's easy to work with and we'll be good in the field," the shortstop said. "He calls to me in Spanish. I call in English. But I answer him back in Spanish, and sometimes he gets on me for my grammar. We're working on that, too."

Rodriguez, a likeable sort, always has taken pains to be friendly, to deflect the extra pressure that comes to every No. 1 pick.

"I always tried to fit in, just be one of the guys on the team, no better or different than anyone else," Rodriguez said.

"I can't worry about those things anymore. I'm Alex, and I think I'm a pretty good kid. And I think I can be a pretty good player. It's time for me just to go out and play."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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