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Nothing Short of Remarkable : Mariners' Rodriguez Having a Season for the Ages at 21

September 23, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — Teammates acknowledge that his polish and poise seem as stunning as his performance.

One such teammate, a 26-year-old senior statesman of the Seattle Mariners named Ken Griffey Jr., surveys the clubhouse from his leather lounge chair and says of Alex Rodriguez, this whiz kid who plays shortstop:

"He takes everything in stride. Doesn't worry about anything. Of course he's 21. What's he got to worry about?"

Not much to worry about except those squealing teenage girls who send invitations to their prom and hang "We Love U Alex" banners in the Kingdome. Griffey makes a face when asked about this and says:

"He's a heartthrob because he's this young, clean-cut, handsome dude, just like I used to be. Cute, you know."

That may be stretching it, but what Griffey was and is, is what Rodriguez seems to be.

"A franchise-type player who can do it all and do it effortlessly, just like Junior," right fielder Jay Buhner said.

A Junior Jr.?

Rodriguez sat at his locker and said: "I'm excited to be having this kind of season, but I'm not really surprised. I have a lot of confidence in my ability."

Whether challenging Griffey in a video game of Mortal Kombat or doing combat with American League pitchers, Rodriguez is doing more than producing a remarkable season for his age.

He's producing a season for the ages.

"And it's no fluke," Manager Lou Piniella said. "The kid can play. He's the real McCoy. Baseball-wise, he's way above his years."

Said Rodriguez: "I really feel like I've been given this gift, that I've been blessed. I thank the Lord for that, but I try to remember that it can be taken away, too.

"I mean, here's something that really humbled me. I'm having a great year, but I realized it would take about 15 of them to do what Paul Molitor did [in accumulating 3,000 hits].

"There are a lot of great players. I just want to be one of them."

In a year in which Ozzie Smith is bowing out and several outstanding young shortstops are bowing in--Derek Jeter, Edgar Renteria and Rey Ordonez among them--Rodriguez is in a class by himself.

The American League's most valuable player, perhaps.

--He's certainly a reason the Mariners stayed in the race when Griffey sat out 20 games because of a broken hand and Edgar Martinez went out for 21 because of a broken rib and Buhner went down for a week because of a jammed thumb and Randy Johnson . . . well, baseball's best pitcher hasn't started a game since May and is out for what is left of the season because of back surgery.

--He's certainly an architect--he batted .435 as the AL's player of the month in August--of the spectacular surge that has enabled the Mariners to put their hands around the Texas Rangers' neck in the West, making that comeback against the Angels last year look like a practice run.

Would you believe? Here are the Mariners again at full throttle and here is Rodriguez leading the league in batting average, runs, total bases, doubles and extra-base hits. He is second in hits and among the leaders in homers, multiple-hit games and both on-base and slugging percentage.

In addition, he has established or is about to establish a stunning array of records for his position and age.

He turned 21 on July 27 but didn't mark that passage by buying his own beer because he doesn't like the taste. He would have happily accepted if teammates had toasted him with milk.

Among those records:

--He will be the first shortstop to win the AL batting title since Lou Boudreau in 1944 and the fifth overall.

--He is currently batting .363 and would be the third youngest to win the batting title. His average is certain to eclipse Ty Cobb's .350 of 1907 as the highest for a player who was under 21 on opening day and will also surpass Lloyd Waner's .355 of 1927 as the highest for a player who finishes a season under 22.

--He is only the fourth shortstop to hit 35 or more home runs--he has 36--and was the third-youngest player to reach that total behind Mel Ott and Frank Robinson.

--He was the fifth youngest to reach 100 RBI (he now has 121), and he has set AL shortstop records for doubles and extra-base hits and is likely to break the record for total bases.

Who said shortstops can't hit for power? Rodriguez asks. An insult, he adds.

Of course, this isn't Rabbit Maranville. Rodriguez is a sleek 6 feet 3, 195 pounds, and figures to get bigger and stronger.

"We projected an average of about .275-.280, 15 homers, 75 RBI, and that would have been a damn good year for a first-year player," Piniella said.

"We batted him ninth at the start to take some of the pressure off, but he came so much faster than we anticipated that we moved him to second in May, about two months ahead of what we envisioned.

"He's hitting in the garden spot of this lineup, but that's not to take anything away from what he's done. He's been outstanding."

There is no pitching around Rodriguez. He's followed by a thunder alley of Griffey, Martinez and Buhner.

All have taken Rodriguez under their wing at times. Perfect role models, said Piniella.

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