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ON BASEBALL

Will he warm up to the hot corner?

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- So, how will Alex Rodriguez, who was on the fast track to becoming the greatest shortstop who ever lived, take to playing third base?

"I'll tell you this," said John Valentin, who made that switch under duress for the Red Sox. "Don't be surprised if he gets bored and says, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'

"I'm not A-Rod, obviously, but there were many days I was playing at third base or second base, and I said to myself, 'I'm a shortstop playing third base,' and I didn't want to be there. The action isn't there. The action is at shortstop. You're the captain of the team, basically, when you're at short. And he gives that all up to play for the Yankees."

In the first days of spring training in 1997, Valentin walked out of camp for two days after the Red Sox' new manager, Jimy Williams, informed him that he would no longer be playing shortstop for the team. Valentin was asked to move to make room for a rookie. Kid by the name of Garciaparra.

"I didn't have any choice," Valentin said. "According to A-Rod, this was his decision to make."

When you're told you have to switch, said Valentin, who at first was moved to second, then took over at third base in midseason when Tim Naehring went down with a career-ending elbow injury, you do the job because "I'll show you anyway." When the decision is yours, he said, you do the job because you're determined to prove you can.

"Either way," he said, "you play well because you're out to prove you can do it."

Valentin's career appeared over last spring when he was released by the Baltimore Orioles and went home to New Jersey. But he played winter ball in Puerto Rico and did well, hitting eight home runs in a month's time, and the Houston Astros signed him to a minor league contract and invited him to big-league camp, where he'll have a chance to win a job as a backup infielder, joining Jose Vizcaino. The Houston manager is Jimy Williams. Among Valentin's teammates are Craig Biggio, with whom he played at Seton Hall, and Roger Clemens, a former pal on the Sox.

"It will be a challenge to my 37-year-old body," he said, "but Jimy's excited to have me and I'm excited to be playing for him again."

Before he signed with the Astros, Valentin said he called the Red Sox. They weren't interested.

He was delighted to hear that Rodriguez planned to wear No. 13, the number Valentin wore for the Red Sox.

"That's sweet," he said. "I thought he might tell George to let him wear him No. 3, that the Babe had been gone a long time."

Valentin suspects that Rodriguez, like Cal Ripken Jr. before him -- another tall, muscular type who ended his career at third -- envisioned switching positions in the latter stages of his career.

"I think he's telling himself now, `Why wait to do it now when I could be the best third baseman ever?' It may even prolong his career into his 40s. What we're not going to see as fans is him challenging to be the best shortstop ever.

"But his body type plays a very big part of this. As he matures and fills out even more, I don't see him staying as lean as he was in his younger days. He may get even bigger and stronger and may wind up hitting even more home runs. This is a smart move for him. It's very difficult to play shortstop in your 30s. As we all know, even Cal slowed down, even though he was so knowledgeable, he was still able to make plays.

"But after you play third, you lose that shortstop's body even more, because at third base you rest more than you do at short. The shortstop is in on every pitch, every play. At third base, you know there are certain guys who aren't going to hit it that way. You're basically just hanging out."

Valentin said that once the Red Sox made him switch, he didn't want to play shortstop again ("I didn't want to be a yo-yo"). But he expects A-Rod will be different. If Jeter gets hurt, he expects Rodriguez will slide right over.

Rodriguez has played only one game at third base in his career.

"He's a lot bigger than me, but I think his agility and reaction skills are going to be challenged," Valentin said. "He's not going to be able to read the ball like he did at short. He may have the tendency to play a little deeper at third so he can see the ball when it's hit to him, and if he does that, people will bunt on him and challenge him a lot, to see if he can cover the bunt."

Valentin isn't the only Sox shortstop asked to move over. In 1948, Johnny Pesky, still only 28 and coming off his third straight 200-hit season, was moved from short to third to make room for Vern Stephens. And in 1971, Rico Petrocelli, also 28, made the same move to accommodate Luis Aparicio, a future Hall of Famer.

And how does Valentin think A-Rod in pinstripes is playing in Boston?

"They had their chance," he said. "Nomar is a very good friend of mine. So is A-Rod. I would have hated to see Nomar leave that way, I'm glad it didn't happen. They ought to sign him.

"They have enough with Manny [Ramirez] and Nomar to compete with the Yankees and possibly beat them. What they needed was a closer and they got him [Keith Foulke]. What they needed was a No. 2 starter and got him [Curt Schilling], too. They needed a righthanded bench guy, and got him in Ellis [Burks], too.

"It's all going to come down to pitching. Is the Red Sox pitching going to stop the New York Yankees softball team? And the Yankee pitching, there are questions. [Javier] Vazquez is very talented, but is he proven? Has he ever pitched in the postseason? No. Kevin Brown is a great pitcher, but can he stay healthy?

"It's going to be a battle. Anybody watching the Red Sox and Yankees go at it, they know it's going to be awfully fun to watch."

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