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In a batting cage deep in the bowels of Yankee Stadium, John Rodriguez is lashing line drive after line drive as the sounds of hip-hop blare throughout the room. Over the din, the man throwing batting practice, a scout who signed Rodriguez to a minor-league contract several years ago, peppers the 25-year-old outfielder with a steady stream of praise. "You killed that pitch," he says, leaning to avoid a ball flying near his head. "I love to see you hit a lot of balls up the middle." But Rodriguez is more interested in his mistakes than his successes, and he grimaces noticeably whenever he fails to make clean contact.
Once BP is over, Rodriguez gathers up his gear, shuts off the thumping sound system and walks the short distance to the Yankee clubhouse. On this particular off-season day, there is no sign of Yankee players or coaching staff. Only Derek Jeter's locker, stocked with several pairs of neatly arranged footwear and a stack of CDs, seems ready for its occupant. But Rodriguez can't hide his thrill at standing in one of the hallowed spots of baseball. "I want to be here during the season," he says, after dropping his bag in the middle of the room. "And I don't just want to be here for a short time, I want to be here for 10 years."
Rodriguez, a soft-spoken man with a steady, even gaze, has spent the past six years climbing through the Yankee farm system, tallying impressive numbers while being slowed at times by injuries. For the past two years, he played for the Class AA Norwich (Connecticut) Navigators, but he suffered a pulled rib-cage muscle that kept him on the bench for the heart of each season. Still, he led the team in home runs in 2001; last year, he knocked in 67 runs, second best on the club. Entering spring training this year, he is hopeful of earning a spot on the Yankees' AAA affiliate, the Columbus Clippers. "I have no doubt he will be there," says Cesar Presbott, the Yankee scout who signed Rodriguez and serves as his baseball godfather.
It would represent an extraordinary achievement. A native of Harlem, Rodriguez was a standout for Brandeis High School, but he didn't garner any interest among major-league scouts. "In New York, it's hard to get noticed," he says, noting that city ballplayers are traditionally underrepresented in the draft. "The fields are just terrible and the season isn't as long as in Florida or California." After graduating from high school, he joined a semiprofessional league in St. Mary's Park in the South Bronx and started thinking about getting a job. Although he quickly became the league's top player, Rodriguez had no illusions about playing in the big leagues. But his uncle Bobby Allende had a plan. He approached an NYPD officer stationed at Yankee Stadium and told the cop about the six-foot-one outfielder with the sweet left-handed swing. Officer Morales pledged to do what he could to help. He flagged down Presbott, an affable Dominican who seems to know everyone who has ever stepped foot in Yankee Stadium.
Presbott, the Yankees' scout for New York, New Jersey, and New England since 1993, invited Rodriguez to a workout at the stadium with a hundred other players. "I went in hungry," says Rodriguez. "And when I stepped out of the dugout, I was, like, 'Wow.' " He proceeded to hit several home runs, the only player to do so that day. Presbott was ready to sign the raw talent, but one of his Yankee colleagues scoffed at the idea. "If you sign him," the man said, "the Yankees are going to take your car away." Presbott couldn't be dissuaded. He gave Rodriguez a paltry $1000 to sign on the dotted line. "I would've signed for nothing," says Rodriguez.
And so Rodriguez commenced his passage through the outer rings of the baseball universe. He played rookie ball for the Gulf Coast (Florida) Yankees in 1997, spent 1998 with the Greensboro (North Carolina) Bats, and played advanced A for the Tampa Yankees in 1999 and 2000. Rodriguez's wife, Milokssy, whom he met in the halls of Brandeis, traveled everywhere with him during the early years. "I'm not saying this just because he's my husband, but I've never seen anyone with such drive," she says. "Sometimes we would literally argue because he would be injured and he wouldn't say anything. He is so determined. He won't let a little injury get to him."
Rodriguez knew that he had to work more than the first- and second-round draft picks, the high-touted players who had already received sizable checks from the organization. "I have to play 10 times harder than they do," he says. "It's not a gift. I get promoted because I work for it." He got up before dawn to train and refused to participate in after-game parties. "There's time for that after the season," he says. And whenever he grew frustrated he thought about growing up in the projects, where his mother and stepfather still live, and his determination to succeed was instantly strengthened.
"Sometimes we drive by developments where they are building new homes," says his wife. "He points to the houses and he says that's what we're going to have. He has this fantasy of building this huge home and moving everyone in."
By the time he reached Norwich in 2001, Rodriguez had developed a fan basesome of his followers traveled many miles to watch him playand a nickname, "J-Rod." His mother, who has created a shrine to her only child in her Harlem apartment, was now able to listen to his games via the Internet. Rodriguez performed well for the Navigators that first year, clobbering 21 home runs. "I thought it was good enough to get out of there," he says. But the Yankees kept him in Norwich for the 2002 season. He again played well despite the injury that kept him on the bench for a month and a half.
Sitting in the El Nuevo Caridad restaurant in Washington Heights after his Yankee Stadium workout, Rodriguez speaks of his career with grave seriousness, understanding that his performance this year is vital to his future. He likely could've made the major leagues much sooner with a club other than the Yankees, which is glutted with talented outfielders and favors signing pricey free agents (see Godzilla, et al.). But Rodriguez isn't one to complain. He says he has to prove himself on the field and leave everything else to the will of God. Throughout the interview, he looks at his watch, eager to head to the gym for his next training session. Before long, he excuses himself with a polite smile, off to prepare once again for the coming season.
Presbott watches as the ballplayer he discovered on a rundown field in the South Bronx skips out the door. "Nobody works harder than him," he says. "Nobody."