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BASEBALL NOTES

Blasting his way to history

Rodriguez undeterred by constant criticism

Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramírez, and Jim Thome all could join the 500-home run club this season (with Gary Sheffield having an outside shot).

A-Rod needs 36 and would be the youngest player to reach 500; he turns 32 on July 27. Former A's and Red Sox great Jimmie Foxx hit No. 500 at 32 years, 337 days. Barring injury or a poor season, Rodriguez will take over that distinction.

Rodriguez has plenty of time to break a lot of records, but with the scrutiny he's under and the criticism he receives at every turn for a player so gifted, you wonder whether Barry Bonds's soon-to-be home run record or Hank Aaron's RBI record are even on his radar screen anymore.

"I don't know, and I don't like answering that because everything I say is twisted and I get sick and tired of people twisting my words around and turning it into something negative," he said. "I think the good Lord has a good plan for me. I'll let him and my family dictate how long I want to play.

"I have four more years left on this contract [with an out after this season] and I can see myself playing two or three years. I'll never play for personal achievements. That's not what I'm about. Everyone says you're crazy moving to third base one home run short of the record for shortstops [Cal Ripken hit 345 homers at shortstop], but that's not what I play for. And that's a prime example of that."

On hitting 500, he said, "It's hard to even think about that number and think about yourself. In our mind, you're always young and full of energy, and when you reach a milestone like that, it means you're getting old or that you've done good things for a while."

Could he have imagined 500 homers growing up in a single-parent household in Miami?

"No, no," he said, shaking his head. "Over the last four or five years, I've become this overdog that everybody loves to hate or whatever. I come from a small section of Miami with a single parent and I was always the ultimate underdog growing up. Never when I was 10, 12, 13 years old did I ever imagine that I would hit 200 home runs, let alone 500."

He speaks glowingly about his slugging contemporaries: Thomas, who has 487 homers, Thome, who has 472, and Ramírez, who has 470 (Sheffield has 455).

"Jimmy is one of baseball's greatest guys," Rodriguez said. "Big, strong guy. Frank has gone through several stages in his career, two-time MVP, and he redefined his career last year and is well on his way to the Hall of Fame.

"I think Manny is the greatest righthanded hitter we've ever seen. That I've ever seen, no question. I can't think of anyone over the years better than Manny Ramírez.

"Now, I haven't seen Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, but I can't imagine their being greater than Manny Ramírez. I have the utmost admiration for Manny, he's a very close friend."

If he were a teammate, how would he handle Ramírez's quirks and antics?

"Very easy," he said. "Thirty-five, 120 every year. I'll take it every day. A lot of superstars have some gimmicks. I'm a goofy guy and I have some [expletive] that comes with me, you know? I judge Manny on two things. No. 1: 7:05 [p.m.]. Every night he's ready to go. And secondly, he's probably the hardest-working player I've ever been around. He keeps it a big secret. He keeps it away from you guys."

Even as we spoke, some fools in the peanut gallery were shouting nasty things at A-Rod for no apparent reason. He seemed to do well in ignoring it.

Johnny Damon interjected, "He's much tougher mentally than I am. He hears it all the time. His family hears it. It's unfortunate."

"I think I've done the best job this spring [of shutting things out]," A-Rod said. "I came in with a fresh new attitude. I got sick and tired of people twisting and turning and dissecting everything I said. It became so much about what I said versus how I'm playing. It's hard enough to play."

He knows much of the venom directed toward him is a result of the 10-year, $250 million contract he was handed by Rangers owner Tom Hicks. In his heart, A-Rod wanted to play shortstop for Boston, and he was willing to give back some of the money to do it -- until the deal was nixed by the Players Association.

"I'm very proud of the contract," he said. "I wouldn't do it any other way. That's what God put me here for. That's how avenues opened up for me. The contract allows me to help millions of people.

"Somebody has to be the highest-paid at some point, and someday it's not going to be me. But while I'm here, if I can protect other players from the crap and [expletive] that I get, I'm cool with that."

He's cool with 500 homers as well. Not bad for his age.

New DH fields inquiries

A few questions for Detroit Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield.

This is a real hypothetical question: If the Yankees had not picked up the option on your contract . . . GS: "Boston was the first place I was going. It was the first place. That's no lie."

You just like the atmosphere, the team, the city? GS: "I like the atmosphere. I like the passion, just like New York. I love hitting in that park, which I thought would be ideal for me. I looked at the situation where I thought that it might be Trot Nixon's last year there, and I thought with Manny, Ortiz, and me, that would make quite a lineup."

Did the Yankees sense that you would have gone to the Red Sox? GS: "No doubt about that. They knew and they didn't want that to happen. I was upset about it at the time because I knew Boston was a great fit."

Even though you had the incident with the fan at Fenway in the right-field corner a few years back, you still wanted to come? GS: "That was one of those isolated incidents. All the times I've gone in there, the fans have been great to me. I felt they respected me because I come with my A game when I come there."

So when that fell through, you were hoping this team (Tigers) would deal for you? GS: "Well, at first I didn't see the fit. I still consider myself an outfielder and they were set in those positions and I didn't think there was no way they were going to make me a DH. Lo and behold, [Jim ] Leyland called and told me that's exactly what he wanted me to do. He asked me to think about becoming a DH and really it took me about two seconds to think about it. Just the fact that I was back with him after we won a ring together in Florida was enough for me."

Think it will prolong your career to be a DH? GS: "I think so, just because I'm getting ABs in spring training and going back-to-back games. I've done it for a few days so far, and just the way my body feels right now, I feel I could do this forever."

Have you tried to be a leader in here? GS: "It's not something you try to do. I've been playing for a long time, so they watch my at-bats, they watch how I approach things, and they ask me a lot of questions on how I lay off certain pitches and how I walk as much as I do. So I just try to share those things with them. If that's being a leader, I guess that's it."

For now, Damon isn't on any power trip in New York

As he gets older, he thinks he's going to hit for more power. Someday, he sees himself as something other than a leadoff hitter.

"I think I've learned year after year coming up," said Johnny Damon, who took advantage of the short porch at Yankee Stadium to slam 24 homers in 2006. "The Royals franchise wanted me to hit the ball on the ground, maybe because I would have priced myself out of that market. I started to swing the bat with authority and stopped trying to guide the ball.

"Obviously, as the years go by, you're going to get a little bit slower, you're not going to be able to steal as many bags. But I think I know myself and my capabilities and that's what makes me a valuable asset to the Yankees."

If he played with a different team, he feels, he might hit second or third in the order.

"I would eventually love to be a No. 2 hitter, but with Derek Jeter there, I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "I always have to understand what I can or can't do. I would love to be a No. 3 hitter, but right now my job is to make Derek's job a lot easier."

He can still make pitchers work, and when he's not turning on a fastball and depositing it into the upper deck, he's a nice table-setter for Jeter, A-Rod & Co. But the one thing that bothered him last season was his .260 average with runners in scoring position, some 35 points lower than his career mark.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself last year," Damon said. "That's what I need to improve on. I hit .260, which is not bad, but for me I've been able to put together good at-bats and calm myself down. Last year I wasn't able to do it."

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. To the children of the late Alan Greenberg: During our many Saturday night dinners before Patriots games, your dad talked about you incessantly. Boy, did he love you; 2. I think the Red Sox will have to come up with a phantom injury for Rule 5 reliever Nick Debarr so they won't have to return him to Tampa Bay. He's pretty good; 3. Did one of the greatest litigators in history, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, not insure Kris Benson's contract?; 4. I've had no less than five scouts inquire about Kyle Snyder. Look for a team needing an end-of-the-rotation starter to pursue him before the end of the month; 5. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been expressing concern to Japanese reporters about the high mound in the bullpen at City of Palms Park.

Life decisionsDetroit skipper
Jim Leyland
respects Chuck Tanner as much as any manager he's ever been around. Apparently, Tom Yawkey was intrigued with Tanner as well. "There aren't many people I've ever told this story to," said Tanner, who scouts for the Indians. "I came into Fenway with the White Sox, I'm guessing 1973. After a game, the clubhouse kid sent me a message that Mr. Yawkey wanted me to join he and Mrs. Yawkey in his office. So afterward [clubhouse manager] Vinny [Orlando] came by and picked me up and I went up there to his office, sat down, and he said to me, 'I want you to be my manager. And I'll give you a lifetime contract.' Nobody gets lifetime contracts. I thought about it, believe me. I just felt so much loyalty to our owners that I turned it down. It's one of those things as you get older you start thinking 'What if I had taken that job?' I just wonder how different things would have been."

Slow starter
"He didn't look too good," was the way one of 20 scouts watching Sidney Ponson's first outing (vs. Jon Lester) put it. Ponson hit a few 89s and a couple of 85s on his fastball, but the scout did acknowledge, "I never completely judge guys in the first 10 days of camp. He's been over there in Aruba and he's been through a lot of things. I think the Twins are really depending on him, though."

Don't get caught without him
Reds starter Bronson Arroyo says he's often asked by other pitchers to describe Jason Varitek. "It's hard to describe it any other way than you say if you're going to go on a hunting trip in Antarctica, and you're hunting grizzlies, and you don't know much about it and you're kind of tagging along, you always want that one guy that you know can get you out of any situation," said Arroyo. "A guy who can start a fire with no matches, who can, you know, keep you alive. Varitek seems to be that guy. He's manning the ship and he always knows which way it should go. For that reason, you feel very secure with him behind the plate. He knows the hitters. Going into the game, he has a good handle on it."

They wouldn't extend themselves
Alex Gonzalez still wonders why the Red Sox would not offer him a multiyear contract. "I tried my best, played very well in the field, and I just wanted something more than one year," said Gonzalez, who wound up getting a three-year deal with Cincinnati. "After a while, you go one year, one year, you need to stay in one place and take care of your family." He also didn't care for playing "four or five times a week"; he wanted to play every game, but had to sit at times while Alex Cora played. He does feel a lot of affection for Boston fans. "Like I said, I thought I had a good year in the field," he said. "I did the best I could. I thought I deserved a chance to get a good contract. Cincinnati and Toronto wanted me and I decided to come here to a good team in a great baseball city."

At the top of his list
While Leyland continues to experiment with his Tiger leadoff hitters -- he used Pudge Rodriguez in the spot a few times -- center fielder Curtis Granderson is trying to keep his spot there by doing extra work with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon in hopes of improving his .335 on-base percentage from last season. "We're trying to eliminate some wasted movement so we can get from Point A to Point B, which is the start, the load, and the swing," said Granderson. "Hopefully, day in and day out, I can get to that position. And if I'm not having a good day or I'm struggling and facing a really good pitcher, I can bounce back quickly rather than spending time trying to find what mechanical thing I'm not doing right."

Mr. Popularity
According to agent Alan Nero, Yankees righty Chien-Ming Wang has become so popular that he almost has as many marketing deals as another client, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade. "Wang's popularity is phenomenal," Nero said. "There's always something new coming along." Wang also has about 20 lawsuits pending against companies and individuals who are using his likeness to make money without permission.

Get a grip
There is growing concern in baseball organizations about players gripping the bat at or below the knob, which in turn is producing more hamate bone injuries similar to the one Wily Mo Peña had last season. Some hitters feel they get a better grip and generate more power that way, but such a grip can wreak havoc with their hands. A few years back, former Sox general manager Dan Duquette was so concerned about a few Sox farmhands breaking their hamate bones by using this grip that he issued an edict to his farm system, insisting that instructors steer players away from it.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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