Third baseman Alex Rodriguez and shortstop Derek Jeter are getting along in Yankees infield.
By PETE YOUNG
Published April 5, 2004
TAMPA - Breezy, cloudless, 73 degrees, a big crowd at Legends Field on a Saturday afternoon for the final exhibition game of 2004. A large American flag flaps high beyond the leftfield wall.
And Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter occupy the left side of the infield for the New York Yankees.
Could things possibly be better in Yankeesland?
"A-Rod in pinstripes? Steinbrenner is unnn-believable."
The words of the youngster on the playground in the ESPN Radio TV commercial echo the sentiments of many sports fans. George Steinbrenner's Yankees have outdone themselves. Again.
A-Rod and Jeter. Matinee idols. Superstars. In their prime (28 and 29, respectively).
Side by side.
"I've seen some pretty good infields, but this ranks up there with the best," Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield said. "Any time you've got Jeter and A-Rod on the same side, that's something special in the makings."
The acquisition of the 2003 American League MVP, however, isn't a magical one-way pass to utopia. A few significant questions accompany Rodriguez as he tries to help New York to its first World Series title since 2000.
He is at third base after playing his entire life at shortstop. Rodriguez won back-to-back Gold Gloves at shortstop, so this move - the newly imported legend leaving his position to the homegrown legend, Jeter - will be scrutinized ad nauseam.
So far, so good.
"He's been great," first baseman Jason Giambi said. "He's a natural (at third base). He definitely looks like a natural over there."
Rodriguez played error-free ball in the exhibition season.
"The transition's been pretty smooth for him," Jeter said. "He's doing fine. He's making all the plays.
"He works extremely hard at it, so there hasn't been any particularly (difficult aspect for Rodriguez to pick up)."
Rodriguez is the symbol of a revamped Yankees team that also has added big names Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Kenny Lofton, among others. Many think Rodriguez's acquisition from Texas ranks among the biggest transactions in the history of sports, up there with the Yankees swiping Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. (Rodriguez wears No. 13 with the Yankees since Ruth's No. 3 is retired.)
The Rodriguez swap had a Boston angle as well since the Red Sox first attempted to get him in the offseason. That deal fell through, and New York swooped in.
Before the trade Rodriguez told the Yankees he would move to third, and he and Jeter quickly squelched any talk that there was friction between them - or not enough space on one side of the infield for the megastars.
"It's good to see (them sharing the left side of the infield). It's a lot of fun," catcher Jorge Posada said. "They're both helping each other out. I think Derek's going to get a lot from Alex, and the other way around.
"It's fun that they're friends, and it's fun that they're having a good time together. Hopefully they can stay like that."
Apparently the Yankees are convinced Rodriguez has settled in. He played only a combined five innings in Saturday's exhibition finale vs. Detroit and Sunday's game against Yankees "Future Stars."
"Any time you're an athlete (of Rodriguez's caliber) going from short to third is easy," said Sheffield, who made the same position switch early in his career. "He's learning to gauge the speed of the ball. You more so catch the ball with your hands instead of getting in front of it with your body. That's the biggest difference."
Rodriguez will be making the switch while playing in the cauldron of New York and molding his larger-than-life image into the framework of the larger-than-life Yankees, whose clubhouse has longtime luminaries such as Jeter and Bernie Williams.
"To be honest I don't really look at it like that, like it's (two superstars playing next to each other)," said Yankees coach Don Mattingly, a nine-time Gold Glove first baseman. "I'm just watching the games and looking at what's going on with each guy.
"If you didn't know that (Rodriguez) changed (from shortstop), you'd think he's been there his whole career. He's fit right in on and off the field. I don't think he's going to be bothered by (the new surroundings). He's changed teams once before. He's a big deal wherever he goes."
Rodriguez said he enjoys playing with Jeter and hasn't been accidentally wandering toward shortstop or yearning for his old spot.
"So far, so good," said Rodriguez, who has averaged nearly 47 home runs the past six seasons. "I'm feeling comfortable. I'm feeling more comfortable every day. It's probably going to take a couple of months, maybe until the All-Star Game, for me to get completely comfortable. But it's coming along quite well."