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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Plot twists for Arroyo, A-Rod

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It all began 12 years ago in Brooksville, Fla., when a skinny sophomore shortstop for Hernando High School took note of the confident superstar from road-tripping Westminster Christian of Miami. That was the first time Bronson Arroyo noticed Alex Rodriguez.

"He was about 6-3, 195, and at that time I was probably 5-9, 120," remembered Arroyo. "He was like Superman out there. Taking BP, I had never seen balls hit that far in my life.

"At the time I thought he was the cockiest dude I'd ever seen. During the game, I walked and got to second. He was playing shortstop and after a pitch he said something to his second baseman in Spanish and then he walks up to the umpire in the infield and says, with a straight face, `Hey, man. Tell that ump behind the plate that we get those calls back home.' Then he just walked off. He was 18 years old and I was going, `Holy [expletive].' "

A-Rod didn't notice Arroyo back then, but now the two are forever entwined, brought together twice in moments branded into the psyche of Red Sox Nation.

It's a little strange because Rodriguez is a megastar, the highest-paid player in the history of the game, while Arroyo is in his 11th season of pro ball and has only 19 major league wins. But salary and star status didn't matter in 2004 when Arroyo played Woodward/Bernstein to A-Rod's Richard Nixon. Two times Rodriguez was embarrassed in front of the baseball world and in each instance, a skinny 27-year-old righty, one year removed from the minor leagues, was pitching for the Sox.

Arroyo is the one who hit A-Rod in the elbow, triggering the infamous July 24 brawl. For A-Rod, the lowlight of the joust came when Jason Varitek stuffed his catcher's mitt into Rodriguez's handsome face, then lifted the quarter-billion-dollar man off the ground. Three months later, Arroyo was the one holding the baseball in his glove when A-Rod executed his girlie-man slap, a play that lives forever on screen-savers around the world (one version has Rodriguez hitting Arroyo with a purse while the other shows Alex with Hamburger Helper hands).

And to think it all began in high school when Arroyo gaped at the sight of senior superstar Rodriguez.

"They were the No. 1 team in the country and they were traveling around, making a circuit," said Arroyo. "They came to our place and I totally remember the game because I was a sophomore, he was a senior, I was a shortstop, he was a shortstop. He was so big and so dominant. He was out there stretching. He was in the middle and the whole team was in a circle around him and I thought he was the coach.

"I remember their whole team took batting practice with wood and then switched to metal about halfway through the round. They had two complete teams. They had a B team that went out and took infield and then they went out and took infield. It was phenomenal to watch.

"They beat us in extra innings. We had a pretty good pitcher throwing. It was tied, 3-3, we missed a squeeze in the sixth, and they came back in the ninth and he hit a home run on a 2-and-2 changeup and they won, 4-3."

Arroyo's recall is amazing, given the amount of time that has passed. The two didn't cross paths again until last spring when Rodriguez made his first trip to Fenway as a Yankee.

"I asked him if he remembered the game and he said he vaguely remembered," said Arroyo. "He said he remembered Zephyrhills, which they played after us. But he wasn't even really sure about the game. I think he had already hit like 10 home runs in 10 games that year. Everybody knew he was going to be the first pick, so I guess for him it was just another game."

Just another game. And last summer Arroyo was just another hittable pitcher struggling to stay in the majors when he once again crossed paths with the great Alex Rodriguez. We can be pretty sure A-Rod remembers him now.

"I don't think either one of those plays would have happened had it been Curt [Schilling] pitching," said Arroyo. "I think he would have held off had it been Pedro [Martinez] or Curt pitching. I'm an under-established young guy and I think he figured he's a big dog in the game. That's the only reason I think a fight broke out.

"I hit him on his elbow pad with an 86-mile-an-hour sinker. I know it didn't hurt. If it was someone else pitching, I don't think he would have made a big deal of it. I didn't throw inside on righties a lot last year. I doubled up in there for the first time in a long time. Hit him with a base open. He probably thought it was a little fishy."

The two had a brief exchange after the infamous slap play in Game 6.

"He was talking to the umpire like 10 minutes after the play," said Arroyo, "and they had already called him out forever ago and I was just kind of looking over at him and smirking. And he said to the umpire, `Look, he's laughing at you because you made the wrong call.' "

Just like in high school. Still telling the umps what to do. Still thinking he's better than all the other kids.

"I didn't have any interaction with him other than that," said Arroyo. "I haven't talked to him at all. I don't intend to. I don't think he wants to talk to me, I don't want to talk to him. I think he's probably anxious to get back in the game. He had a monster year as it was, numbers-wise, and it kind of got overshadowed by some of the antics that have happened, but I think it'll just be back to business.

"He's definitely a confident, cocky guy. He's always known he has a lot of ability and he's not going to change. He'll be the same guy this year and I'm sure we'll have some battles in the 19 games we play them."

Rodriguez has been the punching bag of spring training 2005. It seems that Jose Canseco is the only baseball person who has yet to take a shot at him. Schilling, Trot Nixon, and David Wells fired salvos from Fort Myers and Yankee leaders Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada made no effort to back their high-profile teammate. Now the old high school stories are surfacing and pretty soon we'll find out he has some overdue videos and library books. It's been a long year already and the big guy hasn't even reported to spring training yet. Small wonder Red Sox fans just can't stop smiling.

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