Alex Rodriguez -- Some Say If Anyone Can Be A Superstar And A Great Guy, It'll Be
HE HAS EVERYTHING A man should have: A job. A house. A dog. A swimming pool and pool table. Four remote controls' worth of electronics. A pager so you can get in touch with him. A cell phone so he can get in touch with you.
A strong work ethic. Humility. A sense that you never forget where you come from. Generosity. Curiosity. An appreciation for fine garments, good food and music with a mighty beat.
An interest in art, books, vocabulary and table etiquette. An ability to speak a foreign language, use chopsticks and drive a powerful car the way Nate McMillan drives the court: well but not fancy.
Then there's a body, as lovely as the glow of Mount Rainier during a summer sunset.
I tell you this about the body because in Seattle, we love Seattle Mariner Alex Rodriguez - A-Rod, The Rod, Hot Rod, The Youngster, Junior's Junior, Young Buck - for what his body does.
The country's No. 1 high-school player became, at 17, the Mariners' No. 1 draft pick; at 18, the youngest player to start in the majors in a decade; at 20, the youngest shortstop ever to make the All Star team; at 21, third youngest batting champ in American League history; one vote short of MVP.
Last fall, a small group of fans sat in the Kingdome's 300 level. They were high enough to be roughly eye-level with the Diamond Vision screen, which made them brave souls. They wore bobby socks, hemp macrame bracelets and teeth retainers and had the ability to shriek, you might have thought, as only Mariah Carey could. They were 13 and 14.
"I think Alex is the cuuuuuutest."
"It's not like omigod-love. It's like a crush. It's like he's my dream guy. He is the HOTTEST GUY IN THE WORLD!"
"He's so sweet because in all the interviews and everything, he loves his mom. I'd marry him if he asked."
People like Alex Rodriguez because he's (1) a great baseball player; (2) young; (3) cute and (4) nice.
The love affair is not confined to 300-level kids.
A mom: He's fresh, honest, sincere. He's better than that green-haired Rodman guy on that basketball team. Would you want your daughter to go out with him?
A woman on the Seattle City Council: He's so cute!
A guy who runs a sandwich shop: My wife loves him. My kids love him. Everybody I know loves him.
A (male, straight) newspaper editor: He's beautiful. I love the guy.
A (male, gay) designer: Alex? Oh God.
A boy, age 10: On TV, he talks all nice. He's the coolest player on the team.
A girl, about the same age: He comes over and signs autographs and most of the players don't. He waves.
THESE ARE THE SORTS of things I'm thinking when I'm waiting to meet Alex Rodriguez in a room across from the players' lockers one night. The game (a Mariner win) is over. He's showered, changed. He walks in with a plate of food.
He stands 6-foot-3, weighs 200 pounds, has smooth palms and feet that fit size 12 Nike AirMax shoes. His muscles are 21 years old, strong and explosive, and are surrounded by just 8 percent body fat.
Says one of his trainers: A human specimen.
He has the tiniest mole on his neck and a skinny scar on the inside of his left thigh that his dog gave him. He likes it, the scar, because it reminds him of the dog. His ears stick out some. His eyes are green; his eyelashes long. The hair on his face grows at a snail's pace. The hair on his head looks like a ewe's and it is, according to the guy who cuts it, excellent.
"Hi, I'm Alex." He offers a handshake.
He's a kid, I think. He's not sexy in that come take me oh my MY! sort of way but he's pretty to look at and the more you look at him, the more you like looking at him.
Mostly, though, as he starts answering questions, in a soft-spoken way, all along eating his food and making sure he looks you in the eye when he speaks, he comes across as huggable, like a thick cotton bathrobe just out of the dryer.
It's been Wisked and Bounced. It smells great; sparkles; looks fluffy.
I am so very sweet and nice, it says.
IN THE INFIELD. Down goes the mitt. The ball is swooped and thrown with the grace of an Alvin Ailey dancer. At bat and on the base paths he is sleek, elegant.
Those who live and breathe baseball, the sort that take scorecards to games and keep seasons' worth in folders, knew about Alex Rodriguez long before he had a nickname.
He was an 18-year-old up-and-comer, bouncing between the big leagues and the minors. Then after Seattle lost to Cleveland and was eliminated from the 1995 playoffs, Joey Cora, the veteran, sat in the dugout and sobbed into his palms. Alex, the rookie, draped an arm and comforted him.
How sweet, we all thought.
The 1996 season arrived. Alex did extraordinary things; the I Heart Alex posters sprouted up in the stands; the Alex baseball cards were gobbled up. The city fell head over heels.
In nonbaseball terms, what Alex accomplished last year is the equivalent of, say, Charlie Chong, after one year on the Seattle City Council, being nominated as a presidential candidate by the national Democratic Party. And winning.
Last year, twice as many men as women attended Mariner games, according to a KIRO radio survey. According to the only Mariner on the team who gets more fan mail than Alex - Ken Griffey Jr. - the women who came out last year came out to see Rodriguez. Women used to swoon over Edgar, he says, but they all know he's married.
Batting practice. Griffey stands near home plate, doing the other thing he is so talented at doing: talking.
"You see," Griffey expounds, "the FEMALE attendance has de-fin-it-ely gone up.
"You see. Females 15 and over sit on that side."
He points his hands toward Alex's shortstop position.
"Females 15 and under," he says, still pointing in the same direction, "sit on that side.
"You see Sojo and Cora?" Griffey eyes two other Mariners fielding balls near Alex. "Why do you think they're out there? For the stragglers."
BEING A PROFESSIONAL athlete is exhausting. There are the well-reported physical demands. There are certain lifestyle responsibilities that must be met, too.
If you are a professional male athlete of the caliber featured in Spike Lee-directed TV commercials, or nominated to run for president, there are rules that must be followed:
Rule No. 1: Own an A-Type Car and a B-Type Car.
A-Type Cars are the flashy, very expensive sports cars that are all boy and pure toy. B-Type Cars are the big, brawny four-wheel-drive vehicles that get the athlete from the suburb to Rule No. 3-type activity (see below).
Both cars must be impeccably clean, have tinted windows and a stereo system to rival the Iguana Cantina on a Friday night.
Alex drives a red Range Rover that has a stuffed teddy bear dressed in a green knit sweater on the dashboard. He also drives a black Mercedes Benz SC 500, with black leather interior and a CD player that, on occasion, has featured Keith Sweat and Ghost Town DJ's.
Rule No. 2: Live in a nice big house.
Miami is as flashy as Seattle is dreary.
About the only layers to be seen in Miami during the winter are the tummies of women that bloop up and over their little shorts whenever they sit down.
The sun makes the car tops come off, the silver bracelets get smacked onto triceps and the preference, it seems, for many houses to be painted the shade of a lemon ice.
Alex lives in Kendall, a Miami suburb, a nicer Federal Way. He lives in a subdivision with a security guard, an electric gate and several speed bumps. The houses are one-story with many bedrooms, frosted windows and big, leafy plants.
Alex's house is not the fanciest and not the biggest he could have afforded. He lives here because it is close to his mom, central and well-secured. Since moving in, Alex has painted, planted and cleaned up his 3,330-square-foot, four-bedroom house, knocking down walls and putting up arches and columns. "I wanted to make it look big," he says. You can hear it in his voice: Alex is proud.
The refrigerator and stove are black. The kitchen counters, with the jars of vitamins, protein powder and red-and-white mints, are black. Black, too, is the big leather couch arranged in a semicircle and the high-backed chairs that surround a glass octagonal dining table.
There is a red pool table, a cheery coffee table and a whimsical Kandinsky-like painting in a gold frame.
The bedroom is mostly taupe with a white carpet. On one living-room wall there will eventually be a floor-to-ceiling home entertainment system. Right now, there's a 40-inch TV and a stereo system with surge protector, line conditioner, high-definition speaker selection system.
Few knickknacks: a Michael Jordan video, a Magic Johnson basketball, a Steve Young football.
Sixteen-foot ceilings. Lots of marble. The house feels like a showroom. Everything in its place.
Rule No. 3: Play golf.
It must be a combination of the sun, the pretty arc a nicely hit golf ball makes, an escape from the media, and those battery-operated carts. When it's off-season, pro ballplayers head out to the green.
This winter, one guy Alex hung out with was Jose Canseco, formerly of the Oakland Athletics, then the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox, now back with the A's. They're close, so close Canseco gave Alex his beloved German shepherd, Ripper. So trusted is Canseco that if Alex had to go home to entertain some reporter, Canseco could head off to a restaurant and do a most intimate thing: order him sushi.
Canseco's roots are Cuban, Alex's Dominican, and the dark hair and skin, gold chain around the neck, are about the only things they have in common when they play.
Canseco plays golf like a Rottweiler in studded collar thrashing a tennis ball.
"Hit it like a MAN!" Canseco roars, scolding himself and the ball that would not obey.
Alex is golden retriever nuzzling a duckling.
A swing. A lousy shot. Alex sighs big. Shoulders droop. Hands hold waist.
Damn, he muffles. I suck. I'd give anything for a great shot.
Rule No. 4: Have physically attractive female companion.
Alex has seriously dated two girls, each for three years. The first ended when she went off to college and he went off to play ball. The second he prefers not to talk about.
The only girl's picture he carries in his wallet, his older sister Susy says, is a photo of his 5-year-old niece Michelle.
He was in the sixth grade when he first went out on a date. She was Miriam, a cute brunette. He was skinny. He wrote her a note in class and asked her out to a movie. They held hands. They were a couple for two days and then she dumped him.
He has met Veronica Webb, and gotten her autograph. He has met Josie Bissett and has a photo. Cindy Crawford is very pretty, he thinks. A dream date.
"Looks aren't the No. 1 thing. They have to have class, intelligence, then looks."
He would not kiss on the first date. "Not my style."
Rule No. 5: Have your own shoe.
Alex gets his - courtesy of Nike - in 1998.
ATHLETES are pretty good at sticking to these five rules. Then there's Alex. He's formulated two more.
The one thing Alex loves, probably even more than sushi (an affinity so great that he has been known to get Nikko in Seattle to open after closing) is clothes.
"Ever since I was a kid, like from the age of 10, I wanted to look sharp."
Susy used to buy men's polo shirts, the kind with the alligator on them. Alex nagged her about them, rummaging through her closet, saying: You don't wear this anymore, do you? C'mon Susy. When you grow out of this, can I have it?
He shared a bedroom with his older brother, Joe, whose closet held nice slacks that Alex would steal.
Alex doesn't ball clothes up and throw them in the corner. They are always dry-cleaned and steamed.
Alex likes clothes so much, when he shops, he pets them.
If you look like Alex, you could wear a Vancouver Grizzlies jersey (turqoise, brown, red) and still look good.
If you are Alex, you wear two-piece, two-button, Giorgio Armani suits (Black label), custom-made white Dion Scott shirts (real long in the sleeves), Ferragamo shoes, Armani socks; dark wool, corduroy, Hugo Boss nylon for the rain; white Polo and Titleist for golf; a lot of new Nike to sweat.
The key to dressing, says Alex, is to be subtle. "You don't want anything to pop out."
The dark suits and sports jackets hang next to the $2,100 tuxedo in one of two long, skinny closets, beside the hot-pink track shoes. The motorized tie rack holds Versace silk designs that hardly yelp.
The clothes come from Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan. Cal Ripken Jr., the guy Alex really looks up to, buys his suits there from a man named Adam Modlin. Alex found out, found Modlin and now shops there, too.
Most athletes, says Modlin, like loud colors and designs (purple and red; shoulder pads). Alex wants to portray elegance and style.
"He doesn't dress nicely," Modlin says. "He's a well-dressed gentleman."
The children, in "normal talking voices," recite the Pledge of Allegiance and in a normal talking voice, the Seattle school principal tells them television crews are here, and he's around the corner and this is one exciting day!
They give a big Bailey Gatzert yell. The Mariner Moose slides in on his belly. They roar. Alex marches in, smiling, clapping his hands. More roars. The TV cameramen with their bulky equipment, the newspaper photographers crouching like toddlers in a sandbox, the teachers in chairs with their pocket cameras - everybody focuses and shoots.
"Let's have a show of hands, how many of you like to read?" he says. Four hundred little arms shoot up. "It's important to read as much as you can."
All it takes is a visit, a little bit of inspiration, Alex thinks, to get kids excited about schoolwork, to think about their futures, to work hard. He's not always sure how they're going to react. He gets nervous. Then he looks them in the eye and he realizes how much it means to them and he gets kind of sentimental because it reminds him of when he was that age.
Reading, math, physical fitness, good citizenship, he tells them, really matter. "Math is very important, to keep up with Ken Griffey's batting average."
The heads nod.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
"Civics and math."
How much money do you make?
"I signed a $10 million contract last year."
Do you feel sad when you miss a ball?
"Sometimes I feel like crying."
When did you hit your first home run? How tall are you? Have you ever been to the White House?
In schools, he is a great shusher, great, too, at Donahueing the crowd, careful not to step on any feet, reaching the mike out to a little person in a row.
He makes the woman who frosted 50 vanilla cupcakes to look like baseballs think: Yes, he is worth it.
"It's really an honor for me to come here today and spend some time with you," he says.
"He's a cutie," murmurs a teacher. Another teacher high-fives Alex as he walks by. She kisses her palm and is nudged and winked by the lady beside her.
"How about that nice young man there? What's your question?" Alex says.
The boy in gray sweat shirt and sweat pants asks: Can I hug you?
MIAMI'S HANK KLINE Boys & Girls Club has a flamingo-pink entrance and a clientele of youngsters named Herrera, Mendez, Gomez, Romero and De La Rosa. This is a modest place. It knows children and knows how to take care of them, right down to the Barbie band-aids for scraped knees.
Eddy "Gallo" Rodriguez, a bushy-eyebrowed, gold-earringed, no-nonsense (43, no relation to Alex), former minor-leaguer runs the club's baseball program.
All the best players have played here, Gallo says. Fernandez. Canseco. Palmeiro. And Alex.
Alex, the youngest of three children, was born in New York. He lived in the Dominican Republic for several years, then moved to Miami. His father left the family when Alex was in the fifth grade. His mother, Lourdes Navarro, worked two jobs to send Alex to private school.
He was scrawny with big hands and feet and really quiet when he first started coming to the Boys & Girls Club. He came here every day for years, and even though he moved on to high school, then to Seattle and a career, he always remembered this place and the man who helps run it.
It is here that Alex, during the winter, comes and shoots free throws and drops off workout gear and changes into a suit and heads off to some function, sometimes taking Gallo along. It is here in a room behind the office where he and Gallo have had long chats. About life.
These are the sorts of things Gallo tells Alex: It's hard to be on top, easy to come down. You could go out on the field one day and someone could hit a ball and you could break your leg. Phwtt. End of career.
"Play baseball. Work hard. Be the best but be a good human being. Don't ever forget where you came from."
Behind the Hank Kline Boys & Girls Club, there sits the Alex Rodriguez Baseball Field, named in honor of the man who had it built.
No other player has ever come back to this place and given like Alex has, Gallo said. Alex just did it. Whatever you need, he said. At a groundbreaking ceremony that attracted hundreds on a Friday night, mothers in the crowd saluted Alex's mother. You've done good, they told the woman with the gold No. 3 necklace. God bless you and your son.
IF LIFE HADN'T TURNED out the way it has, Alex Rodriguez might have been a University of Miami senior this year majoring in communications.
He misses the idea of college. On road trips last season, he roamed universities, meandering into bookstores. His airplane reading this winter included Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and Machiavelli's "The Prince," two books a Stanford friend recommended he read.
It is too early to tell how fame will change Alex and whether he will turn into a prickly, obnoxious man. Those whose acquaintance goes way back say if anyone can be a superstar and a great guy, it'll be him. Alex's role model is Ripken and that superstar/great guy has already taken to Alex.
As a kid, his sister says, Alex was a brat, headstrong then, motivated now. Once Alex determines something is worth having, he will work toward it without flinching.
There may be others with more talent, he says, but no one works harder.
He seeks advice. He learns new words - epitome, tepid - and uses them so his vocabulary will improve. He knows being late is his worst habit, so he's trying to fix it. And with the many public engagements that are now part of his life, he figured he should know certain things.
This winter, Alex asked his sister to go over table manners with him. Salad fork vs. dinner fork. How to sit. Where to place your hands.
Susy, remind me, he said. I think I need to learn.
Florangela Davila is a reporter for The Seattle Times. Rod Mar is a Times news photographer.
Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.