New Yank Rodriguez a happy camper

Starting fresh at 3rd, star reports for spring training

February 22, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - This is how the planets line up in the New York Yankees' universe: Superstar Alex Rodriguez was sitting at home last October, watching the historic rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox play out in such dramatic fashion that - by his own account - he jumped off the couch several times during the American League Championship Series.

The playoff went the limit and beyond, Game 7 finally ending on an 11th-inning home run by third baseman Aaron Boone that propelled the Yankees into their sixth World Series in eight years.

"If you didn't like watching New York and Boston, you're not a baseball fan," Rodriguez said yesterday. "I just hoped and dreamed I'd be involved in something like that someday."

Rodriguez, who reported to the Yankees' spring training facility yesterday, stopped short of saying that was the day he decided to find a way out of a discouraging situation in Texas, but he left the distinct impression that a seed was planted in his subconscious mind when that baseball landed in the left-field seats at Yankee Stadium.

He could not have imagined the strange series of offseason events that would put him in pinstripes, but everything fell perfectly into place for the richest team in baseball to acquire the highest-paid player in the history of professional team sports.

The Rangers had to want out of his record $252 million contract. The Major League Baseball Players Association had to veto the December deal that nearly sent him to the Red Sox for superstar Manny Ramirez. And the Yankees had to find themselves in enough of a fix to justify assuming another huge salary, which is when Boone tore a knee ligament playing pickup basketball and the whole playoff thing came full circle.

The Yankees flexed their impressive economic muscle, and Rodriguez found himself on baseball's biggest stage - right next to fellow superstar shortstop Derek Jeter.

"It's been very exciting," Rodriguez said. "It's been a dream come true so far, just having the opportunity to lace them up again with a team that has the opportunity to win. Throw into the mix that it's East Coast baseball and playing for the New York Yankees is the ultimate dream."

Rodriguez hasn't played an inning in the American League East, but he has become a central figure in the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry - a symbol of the Yankees' apparent ability to trump the Red Sox at every turn.

"We've all done a lot of talking," he said. "Now it's time to go play. We - New York and Boston - have dominated the headlines all winter. I haven't been a part of it. I'm new to this."

It will be quite a switch after spending all three of his seasons in Texas in last place, but Rodriguez was so eager to jump to the Yankees that he agreed to take on the extra burden of learning to play third base.

There will be pressure to adapt to the new position quickly. There will be pressure to prove he can handle the Yankees' win-or-else mentality. There will be pressure to show a new city that he deserves that gaudy $25 million-per-year salary.

"We all feel pressure," he said, "but being on a last-place team and it being your fault that you're a last-place team ... that's the worst kind of pressure."

Rodriguez spent the past few days taking ground balls out of public view at the University of Miami. He worked out for the first time with the Yankees at their minor league spring training facility yesterday afternoon.

Though he is perhaps the best all-around player in the game, no one is predicting that his transition to third base will be seamless.

"I'm going to make a lot of errors early," Rodriguez said, "but hopefully winning will take care of that, and hopefully I'll be the third baseman on a world championship team."

Manager Joe Torre, who moved from catcher to third base during his playing career, expects Rodriguez to feel his way around the position for a while, but he doesn't expect him to be a serious defensive liability.

"I played third base, and I'd like to say that if I could do it, anybody could do it," Torre said. "It's different, but I don't think he will have any problem."

Of course, Rodriguez isn't the first superstar to make the move to third base after establishing himself as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Orioles legend Cal Ripken made the switch late in his career with surprisingly little problem.

"I never remember it being a problem at all," said former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. "It took him a little time to get used to it, because the ball gets on you a lot faster and there are a few things that you have to learn."

Rodriguez has not consulted Ripken about the switch, but said he plans to ask him for advice at some point.

"I hope some time to reach out to him and ask him about the transition," Rodriguez said, "not only because he moved to third base but also because our body types are similar. I hope he can help me with the transition and I'm going to look into that."

In the meantime, Rodriguez also has to adjust to something else that is decidedly different than he experienced in Texas or during the early years of his career with the Seattle Mariners - the demands of the nation's most intense media market.

More than 100 print reporters and broadcasters were waiting for him when he came out of the clubhouse yesterday. The Yankees had to set up a media tent to accommodate the additional interest in his arrival.

"I'm humbled," he said. "I came from a humble background and to see everyone here is something I never could have expected. I don't know [how he'll handle all the attention]. I can only control what I do. I can't control how you react to me."

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