SAN ANTONIO -- Alex Rodriguez, considered by many to be one of the hottest baseball prospects in history, is trying to play his cards right.
But a little sleight of hand and a lot of dealing from the bottom, according to Rodriguez and his advisers, have made a burden of the game he loves.
"I'm 17 years old, I've got a lot to look forward to," Rodriguez said. "But I wish everything I'm going through right now would get settled so I would know where I'm going to be and what I'm going to be doing."
The prize in this high-stakes game of stud -- not the five-card variety of stud -- is the stud called Rodriguez, who has every baseball tool imaginable.
He carries 195 nicely compacted pounds on a 6-3 frame. He has South Florida toughness, maturity beyond his years and skills almost every scout compares to Cincinnati star Barry Larkin's.
With speed that accounted for 35 of 35 stolen bases at Miami's Westminster Christian School and impeccable fielding skills, Rodriguez seems to have it all. Only Monday, in a 12-2 thrashing of the East by Rodriguez's South squad at the Olympic Festival here, Rodriguez went 2-for-4 at the plate and 3-for-3 stealing bases.
Rodriguez, named the national player of the year by virtually every publication, also batted .505 in high school and was considered good enough to break onto a major-league roster within a year.
But in this high-stakes game, as Rodriguez knows too well, the players are tough.
First, there are the Seattle Mariners, who drafted Rodriguez No. 1 despite a warning that if the Mariners took Rodriguez they would have to pay dearly.
Rodriguez grew up only minutes from the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring home of Vero Beach, Fla., and he has dreamed of playing in the National League. He told the Mariners that he preferred to go to the Dodgers in the No. 2 spot.
"I told them a month before the draft, a week before and an hour before that if they wanted me, fine," Rodriguez said. "But if [Seattle] drafted me, they were going to have to pay more because I had other options."
Rodriguez's adviser, Scott Boras, the agent for 1991 Yankees draft choice Brien Taylor, who signed with a record $1.7 million bonus, told the Mariners the price for Rodriguez would be $2.5 million. Had the Dodgers drafted Rodriguez, the signing price might well have been $1 million less.
The best the Mariners have offered is a $1 million bonus and a guarantee that Rodriguez would be called up to the majors in September when rosters expand to 40.
That's not good enough.
"I don't want to say anything bad about the Mariners or Seattle, it's not that . . . . I gave them my word as a man that I would play if there were certain conditions. The way it is now, it is an insult to me and my family."
But other players, some more accommodating than others, are hovering around Rodriguez. There is the trading card manufacturer Topps, for example.
Rodriguez is in San Antonio this week and not with the touring U.S. national team because of a negotiating impasse with Topps.
Rodriguez was assured of starting for the U.S. squad that will play a series of games with international clubs this summer, including home-and-home games against Cuba. But Topps has a contract with USA Baseball, giving it the right to make a trading card for every player on the team.
Rodriguez and his advisers requested not to be part of that agreement because they hope to sign a contract individually with a card manufacturer. Topps would not budge, so Rodriguez left the national team and came to the Festival.
"Everyone knows [baseball cards] are a big thing," Rodriguez said. "We waited and waited for two weeks for a decision [from Topps]. The first card you have, you know, is the one worth the most. I didn't want to just give that away.
"And I wasn't sure if I signed with them then if it would affect my [collegiate] eligibility if that's what I wanted to do."
More players come into the game here.
Rodriguez has signed a national baseball letter of intent with the University of Miami. If the Mariners don't meet Rodriguez's contract demands by Aug. 24, Miami will have his services.
Hurricanes football coach Dennis Erickson has said there is a spot for the part-time star quarterback on the Miami football team should Rodriguez enroll.
"I'm very confident with what I do and I don't mind taking risks," Rodriguez said. "If this doesn't get settled, I'll go to school. I'm ready to commit for three years [to Miami] and maybe be the top draft pick again."
"A lot of people forget that I'm only 17," said Rodriguez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. "I've never had money, so I don't know what I'm missing if I wait three years to be drafted again. . . . . I know I'll have my chance."
If it's in the cards.