Ready For His Close-Up

It was like watching Ricky Martin emerge from the backstage door and head for the limo--except this was the usually sedate environs of spring-training baseball. The thousands of fans thronging the Texas Rangers' complex in the backwater of Port Charlotte, Fla., were there to watch Alex Rodriguez, 25, arguably the game's best shortstop ever. Rodriguez made history when he signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with Texas, the biggest in sports. The young kids know a baseball hero. The young women know a hunk. All day long, a flock of fans follows him, from the batting cage to the infield to the far reaches of the outfield. After four hours of workouts, most of the Rangers are done for the day. But Rodriguez plops down in a lawn chair, where he signs balls, bats and shirts for hundreds of fans while bantering good-naturedly. When one young woman invites him home for dinner, he flashes a megawatt smile and asks, "What you cooking?"

What's cooking in Texas is something very hot indeed. The Rangers, a last-place team in 2000, have pinned their hopes for their first-ever world championship on the prodigious talents of A-Rod. But Rodriguez is something more than your average sports superstar. He can also compete with Hollywood's finest for poster position on the ladies' bedroom walls. He's a tall, buff, soft-spoken charmer with caramel skin, shimmering, hazel eyes and a boyish smile. The entire country is now discovering what Hispanics have known since A-Rod was 17 and baseball's numero uno draft pick. "I've been Michael Jordan in Latin countries for years," says Rodriguez, who was born in New York to Dominican parents. "I know what I mean to all Latinos and what this game means to them. Baseball is in their blood."

A-Rod is the linchpin of Major League Baseball's increasingly aggressive marketing to Hispanics. Which explains why baseball's 2001 season opener Sunday showcased A-Rod's Rangers vs. the Toronto Blue Jays--and was played in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The company he now keeps also suggests his elevated stature. Before training camp, he partied in the Bahamas with new pals Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. They understand the perils of superstardom. A-Rod recently disappointed rapper Queen Latifah when he promised he'd show up at her birthday party, then skipped it. "There's all this pressure to please so many people," says Rodriguez. "Michael has been the best at telling me how to handle the business of being me."

The business of being him is very good right now. A-Rod has a lengthy lineup of endorsements, including Nike and Armani. And he recently signed to join Howie Long and Teri Hatcher in Radio Shack's ubiquitous ad campaign. "This is just the beginning," he says. "I want to build a positive image that will last my career."

Rodriguez had an impeccable image until he departed the Seattle Mariners as a free agent after seven seasons. In the course of bruising negotiations, the New York Mets claimed Rodriguez demanded a host of greedy perks, such as use of a private jet. Rodriguez denies it. "I would never ask to be separated from my teammates by that kind of special treatment," he says. A-Rod created another flap by saying he was a better player and more of a team leader than Yankees star Derek Jeter, dissing a guy who was supposed to be a close friend.

Some team owners believe the megadeal threatens baseball's economic future. It could become a rallying cry for owners, much as Kevin Garnett's record NBA deal did, when baseball's labor agreement expires after this season. Rodriguez says he can't worry about that. "This is the business of baseball," he says. "It's doing well and the players should reap the benefits." He admits those benefits are staggering, especially to a young man who used to stay up late to count tips from his mom's waitressing shift. "A bad night was $17 or $18." Now that's about 20 seconds of A-Rod's life. Makes those bad baseball nights a lot easier to take.