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BOB RYAN

Showtime on New York stage

Rodriguez a star who has all his lines down

NEW YORK -- He can't be the King, at least not according to the Boss, who insists that Derek Jeter will continue to be the Yankees' leader.

So this was a very impressive hello for a guy who is just a Prince, albeit one who many maintain is the best player in baseball.

"Wow," exclaimed Alex Rodriguez as he gazed out at the legions of writers, broadcasters, photographers, and assorted techies who had been crammed into the completely inadequate Stadium Club at the 81-year-old ballpark in the South Bronx yesterday. "What a reception."

"[Hideki] Matsui's was big, with all those Japanese we had here," said one observer. "But this is even bigger."

It was big, all right. Joe Torre and Jeter himself even flew in from Tampa. The incumbent shortstop's big duty was to help his old friend and new mate on the left side of the Yankee infield slip into his new jersey No. 13 (he's always worn 3, but that's kinda been spoken for) so the photogs could begin flashing away. The skipper was there to be his usual gracious self.

On a cold, gray February day, baseball reigned supreme in New York.

The Daily News welcomed A-Rod with a 13-page section. There were suggestions that Jeter and A-Rod could be either the new Mantle and Maris or Ruth and Gehrig, but at least there was nothing contained therein to match the astonishing audaciousness of a New York Post writer who had, in Monday's paper, gone so far as suggest that the 2004 Yankees could not only break the season record of 116 wins but also eclipse the 1906 Cubs' winning percentage of .763 (116-36), a feat that would necessitate the team winning 124 games. This gentleman apparently thinks that out of New York's 76 games with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Devil Rays, all of whom appear to have improved to some degree, the Yankees will win approximately 72.

A-Rod showed up clad in a nice, dark -- you can't make this stuff up -- pinstriped suit. He even had a striped tie that neatly complemented his new Yankee jersey. He said nothing you wouldn't expect.

Moving to third will be a "challenge," but so was playing short. Coming to the ballpark as a Yankee is something "I relish." He is at the point in his career where "winning is the most important thing." His friend Derek has four rings and "I want him to have 10." He expects his reception in Fenway "will not be very warm."

It was all boilerplate stuff, but there was one amusing moment that rated about a 9 on the disingenuous scale of 10. Asked if his $252 million contract with Texas had turned out to be a bit burdensome when he decided it would be nice to switch teams, he replied, "When it comes to the business of baseball, I'm not very educated." Right, and on subject of music, Ozawa is tone deaf.

Now that he's a Yankee, aren't you curious as to just exactly how this all came about? The idea had to germinate somewhere. Was Yankee general manager Brian Cashman standing in the shower when the thought suddenly popped into his head: You don't suppose A-Rod would be willing to come here and play third? According to Cashman, it was a bit more mundane.

"There were a number of different things that brought this about," he explained. "Aaron Boone went down. Drew Henson went back to football. We were just brainstorming with different concepts when someone came up with it."

"We"? Who are "we"?

"That would be [CEO] Lonn Trost, [president] Randy Levine [vice president/assistant general manager] Jean Afterman, and myself," said Cashman.

Someone should get credit, of course, but in the world of the Boss, only one person could ever receive singular credit for a good idea, and it's none of the above.

So Cashman asked, and, guess what? A-Rod said yes, I'll play third if you want. The fact is, he would have put on a mask, chest protector, and shinguards if that were the only way to get out of Texas. All it took was a little negotiation.

No, that's not true. It took a lot of negotiation. "Mt. Everest is what we're talking about climbing here," declared Cashman.

Of course, it helped that the Yankees will be divesting themselves of $5 million-plus in Alfonso Soriano's salary, $5 million-plus a year in Henson's salary, and another $5 million-plus when they sever their relationship with Boone by paying him off at $900,000, give or take. Believe it or not, A-Rod's first year is already paid for. Texas owner Tom Hicks throwing in $67 million doesn't hurt the big picture, either.

Now if you want to make Cashman smile, mention that the pressure must really be on, now, huh?

"There is no more pressure on us now than there's ever been," he said. "This my seventh year as the Yankee GM, and there are no breaks, no time to catch your breath. The challenge for us now is to incorporate the new people."

Cashman has pressure to win, and so, of course, does Torre. The Yankees have not won it all since 2000, and now that the Boss has handed him the reigning MVP, the only satisfactory result will be the 2004 world championship. But the skipper says that's getting ahead of the story.

"The [Curt] Schilling thing really bothered me," he said. "It still bothers me. That's the one edge we've always had on the Red Sox -- starting pitching -- and now they have really upgraded. If A-Rod had gone to Boston I would have thought, `We lose one headache in Manny and gain another one in A-Rod.' And they also would have gotten Magglio Ordonez. That's pretty good.

"Last year the Red Sox were as good as any team we've faced in my eight years," Torre continued. "They're grinders, and they understand that a bounce or two the other way and they're world champions. Pitching is going to decide this, and now they have Schilling and [Keith] Foulke. This race is no foregone conclusion. I'm sure the Red Sox aren't sitting around saying, `Oh, the Yankees have it wrapped up now that they have A-Rod.' I'm sure that's not their mind-set."

Finally. A voice of reason. Alex Rodriguez is great, but this would have been a lot bigger on-the-field story if he were Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, or even a lefthander who could win 12 games. When you're talking about the Red Sox and the Yankees, it's always necessary to separate the melodrama from the actual baseball.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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