As spring training emerged in 1994, one manager would be provided with the task of guiding the Seattle Mariners’ highly regarded first round draft pick Alex Rodriguez into the ranks of professional baseball. Mariners general manager Woody Woodward realized the importance of having a seasoned veteran to help the highly touted prospect navigate the nuances of the system. He bestowed that honor to Carlos Lezcano, a former major league outfielder, who played under Woodward’s watch when he was the head coach at Florida State University.
“When they made the rosters and we met before spring training started, I knew there was a good chance that he would start with me,” Lezcano recalled via telephone. “They gave me a lot of responsibility to have the number one draft pick playing for me.”
Lezcano immediately noticed Rodriguez’s physical gifts during their first spring training encounter. He had a presence on the field that was unparalleled by your typical 18-year-old fresh out of high school.
“The first thing that impressed me was his size—how strong he was, his coordination, and his ability to do things at a young age with that kind of body,” he said. “He had so much talent.”
With Rodriguez oozing potential out of every inch of his six-foot-three frame, Lezcano directed Rodriguez in the ways of carrying himself like a major league ballplayer. This education included navigating the hordes of press that ensued, preparing him for the intense scrutiny that would follow him for the remainder of his career.
“The main thing I had to do with him was help with the media,” he recalled. “He was very mature and he knew how to talk to the press. Everywhere we went, they wanted to talk to him all the time. I had to tell the reporters to interview him the first day we were there and then on the last day. We usually played a four-game series, so we had to give him a break from the press, as it would have been too much for him to be talking to the press every day. I think that helped him. We had him concentrate on his field work and his play on the field. That’s something I had to deal with that I never had to deal with before, or since.”
While Rodriguez showed poise for a teenager dealing with the media, some of his actions still reminded his skipper that he was handling someone who was trying to figure out how to manage his life away from home. Lezcano recounted a time where the mere threat of telling Rodriguez’s mother about his close calls with being late to the ballpark was enough to straighten him out.
“He was never late, but he was cutting it close a couple of times,” he said. “His mother was going to come to visit him to see him play. I told him, ‘You’re a professional baseball player, you’ve gotta be here sooner or I’m going to tell your mother.’ By just saying that to him he was always there earlier and did whatever he had to do. He had a lot of respect for his mother. You could see he was raised the right way.”
Rodriguez played 65 games for Appleton, batting .319 with 14 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 1994, playing barely half the season with Lezcano before he was whisked up the minor league ladder en route to the major leagues. Looking back, Lezcano feels that the minor leagues were a mere formality for Rodriguez and that if the situation presented itself out of spring training, that he could have bypassed the minor leagues entirely.
“I’ve been in baseball 40 years, that kid could have played in the big leagues out of high school,” he said. “With the right situation and the right manager, ability wise he could have played in the big leagues. [Most impressive was] his ability to take instruction into the game so quickly; he’s the fastest guy I’ve ever had [to make adjustments]. Right away he just took it into the game, it was unbelievable.
“At 18, he would hit balls 400 feet. One time I’m coaching third base and he hit a triple and he slides into third base. The guy who caught the ball was 23-24 years old and Alex looked like the man and the other guy looked like the young kid. He was that dominant of a player.”
Fresh off of coaching the Liberal Blue Jays against Roger Clemens’ team of former major leaguers in the National Baseball Congress World Series, Lezcano shared how working with the college-aged players reminded him of how advanced Rodriguez was for his age.
“It’s like young people play the game too fast,” he said. “They get excited and they play fast. He always played the game under control and kind of slowed the game down. That’s what you want to do with young players. Slow the game down, have options in your mind. He was like that from the beginning. That’s part of the reason he was so good, his ability and way of slowing the game down at a young age was very unusual.”
As the Yankees sent Rodriguez off the field with an epic farewell, his first professional manager wondered if it was truly the last time that his prodigy would set foot on major league soil. He is holding out that another club will give Rodriguez a chance to reach the 700 home run milestone.
“I hope he latches one with someone else,” he said. “The guy’s got 696 home runs. I just hope he gets a chance to hit 700 somewhere. Alex had his things throughout his baseball career, but I think way down he’s got a good heart and he’s a good man. I just hope that this is not the end of him. He hasn’t been treated fairly. I don’t know the whole details, but I hope he gets another chance to get that 700.
“I only have good things to say about Alex. He’s behaved like a true professional. I’m glad that people are taking care of showing that side of him instead of the negative stuff; talking about that raw talent, that innocent face, and that kid that was worried about what his mother would say if I said something to her.”