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Nobody's perfect, eh? Tell these two

Rodriguez and Jeter: There never has been a pair like them.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


TAMPA -- He is 26. Handsome, talented, famous and fabulously wealthy. Could life be any finer? Perhaps, if he were 25.

Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez? It is like choosing between Monte Carlo and the French Riviera. They seem to exist to convince the other that life, indeed, could be even better.

You say the Yankees are paying Jeter $189-million in the next decade? Rodriguez is getting $252-million from the Rangers. You're impressed Rodriguez has been named to four All-Star teams by age 25? Jeter has four World Series rings at 26. You rave about Rodriguez's arm at shortstop?

Yeah, well, guess which shortstop has an arm around Miss Universe?

They are friends, they are rivals and they are scheduled to be at Legends Field tonight for a game between the Yankees and Rangers.

History never has seen two shortstops of such magnitude playing at the same time. Actually, history never has seen the collection of shortstops around the American League. Boston's Nomar Garciaparra is every bit as potent with a bat. Cleveland's Omar Vizquel is superior defensively. Oakland's Miguel Tejada and Detroit's Deivi Cruz are budding talents.

But none has the star power or the charisma of Rodriguez and Jeter.

"This is one of those moments in time where, as fans, you should enjoy it because I don't think it's going to happen again at that position with those kind of players," said Phillies manager Larry Bowa, one of the top fielding shortstops in history. "I know things run in streaks, but to have great ones like this in one era, one decade, is phenomenal."

"I can run a little. I can field. I have a pretty good arm. But to be put in that category, you have to be an awesome hitter," said Vizquel, who would be a perennial All-Star in almost any other era. "I think it's great to have them around. It's always pushing me to be a little better, to put my name up there with theirs. I'm just grateful to be playing in this age."

Jeter and Rodriguez were born a year apart and entered the majors within a year of each other. When Jeter won the Rookie of the Year award in 1996, Rodriguez won the batting title. When Rodriguez had to bow out as the All-Star Game starter because of an injury last season, Jeter stepped in and won the MVP award.

They have appeared together on the cover of GQ (along with Garciaparra) and have spent off-seasons in each other's company.

"Like brothers," Rodriguez has said.

And, like siblings, they have the occasional squabble. Twice in the past year, Rodriguez has made what might be construed as less than complimentary remarks about Jeter. The most recent was in the current issue of Esquire. Rodriguez said Jeter has "never had to lead" with the Yankees and has less pressure as a No. 2 hitter with stars around him.

The remarks were not terribly inflammatory, or even untrue, but they caused a brief media sensation before Rodriguez and Jeter could talk on the phone and announce the matter closed.

The incident is important, however, from the standpoint of how both players handled it. Jeter did not lash back, and Rodriguez did not blame the flap on the journalist. In an era of spoiled stars who refuse to accept responsibility, Jeter and Rodriguez are refreshingly mature and grounded.

"For a young guy, it's amazing how well he has handled himself in New York. He's actually very shy," Yankees teammate Dwight Gooden said of Jeter. "What's good about him is that he is always the same every day, no matter how things are going. He is always consistent, and that's important."

Rodriguez has such a winning personality, he has been able to deflect the inevitable backlash that comes with sport's largest contract. The Rangers make no apologies for the precedent-setting $25-million a year he will make. Even if his contract is nearly equal to the value of the franchise.

"He's that special kind of a star who can be a talent on and off the field. It's how he carries himself, how he presents himself," Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said. "If he's worth $20-million (a year) for his physical skills, we feel he's worth another $5-million a year for what he brings to the franchise."

For the average fan, however, the most important thing is what a player can bring to a team. And though they have much in common, Rodriguez and Jeter bring different talents to the table.

"They're hard to compare because they're two different kind of players," Reds manager Bob Boone said. "Jeter produces runs by getting on base and scoring. Rodriguez drives runs in. They're both outstanding shortstops, both special players. It just depends on how you want to get beat."

There is a trace of envy for what the other does better. Jeter has worked hard to increase his power. Rodriguez sometimes is annoyed that his defense is not held in as high a regard.

"With the home runs and the RBI, Rodriguez has the capability of taking over a game," Rays manager Larry Rothschild said. "He's a smart hitter, he's a smart baserunner. He has the total package on offense."

Jeter is considered the more complete player, Rodriguez the more dynamic. Jeter is smoother in the field; Rodriguez has the better arm.

"If the game is on the line, I want to see Jeter at the plate, or on the base or getting the ball in the field," said Rays first-base coach Jose Cardenal, who was with the Yankees during Jeter's first four seasons. "He can beat you in so many ways. He delivers when the game is on the line, and that's what the great ones do. I like A-Rod a lot, but if it's do-or-die, I'm going to go with Jeter."

Jeter or Rodriguez?

Who cares.

Just enjoy them while you can.

"There's a rivalry there, a competition there," Bowa said. "They might not tell you that, but they feed off that competition big time. And that's good for the game. It's real good for the game."

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