2004-02-27 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

New York Yankees infielders Derek Jeter, left, and Alex Rodriguez talk to the media after a Yankees workout. (AP Photo/ Rusty Kennedy).New York Yankees infielders Derek Jeter, left, and Alex Rodriguez talk to the media after a Yankees workout. (AP Photo/ Rusty Kennedy).

At this rate, by June we’ll be all be sick of Alex Rodriguez.

It’s amazing when you can turn on the YES Network and not see A-Rod’s mug plastered on the screen. You could have fooled us; down in Tampa, it’s almost a 24-hour ratings bonanza – all A-Rod, all the time.

There’s only so much minutia that the media swarms can hope to analyze in these early days of spring training; some log A-Rod’s batting practice swings with the efficiency of an IRS auditor, others score his handling of routine ground balls as though it were an Olympic ice-dancing competition, and the truly daring try to elbow into the depths of a reportedly icy relationship with infield mate Derek Jeter.

Somehow, this is all blockbuster, front-page information. The Yankees can’t possibly win the World Series if A-Rod and Jeter are still steamed over their three-year-old war of words – or so the tabloids would have you believe.

Truth be told, we’ve never seen this kind of phenomenon – a sport’s top player gelling on board with the sport’s most successful franchise, playing in the media capital of the world. There are no parallels; the Yankees are embarking on uncharted waters, and we can only imagine what the next seven years of A-Rod’s $179 million future in pinstripes hold in store.

For the time being, it’s a setup that Jeter describes as "awkward." While it’s all smiles in front of the cameras, Jeter must know deep down that the campaigning for A-Rod to play short will begin mere milliseconds after his first error of the season. If not, certainly the murmurs will turn to bullhorns if Jeter is sidelined by an injury like the shoulder dislocation that knocked him out on Opening Day in Toronto last season.

But even if the hungry and curious public opinion cries for the new kid on the block to get his cracks at shortstop, A-Rod knows that his place with the Yankees (for the time being, at least) is at third base, no questions asked.

After all, Rodriguez must be well aware by now that he would never have even been able to engineer his escape from the doldrums of Texas if not for Jeter’s express blessing to George Steinbrenner and Yankee management – yes, the three-piece suits Jeter wears to the Bronx in the summer aren’t just for show.

Even without the media, the man has influence, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see Jeter quietly slip into the background at some point this season and watch A-Rod take over as the public face and the mouthpiece of the Yankees. Heck, it’s already beginning.

That’s because while Jeter has ownership’s ears, A-Rod’s the one putting a glimmer in Yankees fans’ eyes – every word from his mouth is public gold, every lunge for a sinking liner to left worthy of a lead story on the evening news. When Rodriguez went to the water cooler after batting practice Tuesday, a TV cameraman made sure a boom microphone was in place to record the clunk of the paper cup hitting the dugout steps.

The Yankees have been drawing larger crowds to workouts at the Legends Field training facility than the Montreal Expos attracted to some regular-season games last year, so Rodriguez has had to adjust his timetable to actually get some real work in during a day that quickly fills with photo opportunities and media obligations.

"This is like Game One of the World Series," catcher Joe Girardi – who knows a thing or two about the Yankees’ travels to the postseason – said this week.

We don’t think he was being hyperbolic: it’s only February. Yankee-world will become a daily event of Super Bowl proportions (minus Justin Tim ber lake, we can only hope) by Opening Day.

If you’re looking to catch A-Rod flashing his Park Avenue-priced leather, you’ll have to adopt the sleep schedule of a rooster. He’s in uniform and taking grounders from coaches Luis Sojo, Robby Thomson and Graig Nettles on a secluded practice field earlier than 8:00 a.m., more than 90 minutes before Yankees players are even required to be in uniform.

Even so, fans are adjusting. Die hard Bombers rooters found a way to creep into the facility and snap pictures of Rodriguez’s early workouts by the end of the week, and a grinning A-Rod couldn’t help but applaud their tenacity. "It’s part of the Yankee Nation," Rodriguez said. "People always follow you around." Stop the presses: the wild ride is only just beginning.

Contact Bryan Hoch: bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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