- Andrew Marchand, ESPNNewYork.com
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The apprehensive 13-year-old approached Keith Hernandez. Like any other kid meeting his idol, a "super nervous" feeling rushed though his body. Finally, with his courage up, the youngster addressed the player he had spent so many nights watching on TV.
"You are my favorite player," Alex Rodriguez recalled saying. "I hope to be drafted one day."
The funny thing about that chance meeting in 1988 is that Hernandez remembers it, too. Hernandez, the former MVP, was rehabbing a hamstring injury at Florida International University when this kid -- who had yet to hit any of his 640 homers -- walked up to him.
What sticks out most in Hernandez's mind was not Rodriguez's "imposing physique," but his intensity.
"He was very intent to listen," said Hernandez, now an analyst on the Mets' network, SNY. "He asked questions."
Rodriguez has shown some chameleon tendencies during his career, claiming this place or that place was always his dream spot. But, in reality, on the eve of the latest Subway Series, Rodriguez knows it wasn't Texas, despite the money, or the Yankees, despite the history, that tugged at his heart.
It was the Mets.
Growing up in Miami in the '80s, there were three main outlets for Rodriguez to watch baseball. There was WGN for the Cubs, WTBS for the Braves and WOR for the Mets.
He didn't have much affection for anyone at Wrigley. He loved Dale Murphy during the years that preceded the Braves' glorious run in the '90s. But A-Rod's favorite team was the Mets, cemented by the fact that they added Hernandez in 1983.
"Him and [Gary] Carter were the finishing two pieces of furniture to create the perfect house," Rodriguez said. "And they got the championship in '86."
Fourteen years later, the Mets would return to their next World Series. By that time, A-Rod, just 25, had already nailed 241 homers -- 79 more than Hernandez had in his entire 17-year career.
Rodriguez, on the verge of hitting the market as possibly the most celebrated free agent in baseball history, famously showed up at Shea Stadium for the Subway Series, hoping he would emulate his idol and one day lead the Mets to a World Series title.
Rodriguez wanted to be a Met so bad that one person close to him still insists he would have taken less than the $252 million the Texas Rangers ended up forking over.
Instead, in the first of A-Rod's many public relations disasters, a back-and-forth between his then-agent, Scott Boras, and the Mets resulted in the Mets failing to even bid on A-Rod. All he got from his favorite team was the "24-plus-one" tag pinned on him like a scarlet letter by then-GM Steve Phillips.
These days, A-Rod is struggling at the plate, on pace for 26 homers and fewer than 80 RBIs. He will turn 37 next month, which is an age Hernandez never made it to as a player. Rodriguez is no longer a kid.
In the Yankees' clubhouse the other day, Rodriguez relished reminiscing about Hernandez's game.
Rodriguez never played first base. He was always a shortstop growing up, which is why he has an equal fondness for Cal Ripken Jr. as he does for Hernandez. But Hernandez's intensity, and his leadership on the field, drew A-Rod in.
For all of Rodriguez's physical skills, one of the aspects of his game that perhaps has not received enough attention is his mind. While Derek Jeter's success resides in the fact that he simplifies everything, Rodriguez loves the complexities of the game, talking it, living it and, most of all, playing it.
"Everything about Hernandez, I loved," Rodriguez said. "I love the game so much. I'm such a gym rat. Hernandez was kind of the epitome of all of it. He was like a manager out on the field. He was always in the pitcher's ear. He was kind of like Davey Johnson, Part 2. And he was such a clutch hitter."
The two are acquaintances now. Rodriguez, who can afford nearly anything in the world, calls the game-used uniform and mitt Hernandez gave him one of his "prized possessions."
Rodriguez's career will never be looked at as perfect, largely because of his performance-enhancing drug use admission. But players respect his skill level and his accomplishments.
Nearly a quarter-century after the two met, the meeting is just as special to Hernandez as it was for the apprehensive teenager in Miami.
"It means a lot to me," the 58-year-old Hernandez said. "It is a great compliment. He is a far better player than I ever was. It is always very flattering. Everyone has someone they looked up to. Mine was Mickey Mantle. For Alex Rodriguez to idolize me coming up, that makes me feel very good."
A-Rod knows it wasn't the Yanks or Texas that tugged at his heart. It was the Mets.