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08/04/07 2:06 PM ET

Piniella a witness to A-Rod's rise

Skipper has watched slugger since rookie year in Seattle

Alex Rodriguez was the youngest player in baseball when he made his Major League debut on July 8, 1994, for the Mariners and Lou Piniella.

"We brought him up just to give him a little taste, a little experience, knowing we would send him back [to the Minors]," said Piniella, who was Seattle's manager at that time.

Rodriguez was Seattle's first-round pick in 1993, and in 1994, at the age of 18, he appeared in 17 big league games, going 11-for-54. He was hitless in his Major League debut at Fenway Park. All of his hits that first season were singles. He was the first 18-year-old Major League player in 10 years, and the youngest position player in Mariners history. However, that season was cut short by the Major League Baseball strike.

The next year, Rodriguez was called up for a total of 48 games with the Mariners, and he went 33-for-142. He hit five home runs to begin the countdown to 500, including his first on June 12, 1995, off Kansas City's Tom Gordon.

And in 1996?

"He should've won the MVP," Piniella said.

Rodriguez batted .358 that season, hit 36 homers and 54 doubles, totaled 123 RBIs and had a .631 slugging percentage, but finished three points behind Juan Gonzalez in the MVP balloting. Gonzalez batted .314 with 47 homers, 33 doubles and 144 RBIs for the Texas Rangers.

Rodriguez was up to stay, and he was Piniella's starting shortstop in Seattle through the 2000 season.

"He's a special talent," Piniella said. "He's a strong young man who has all the physical tools. He has the athleticism of a shortstop and the power of a third baseman. That's a pretty good combination."

The Mariners knew Rodriguez possessed such skills when they selected him. He was the star shortstop at Westminster Christian High School in Miami, batting .419 with 90 steals in 100 games.

"When we drafted him out of Westminster High School, he was like a man among boys," Piniella said. "We had him in camp, and we knew exactly what he was going to turn out to be. Could you estimate 50 home runs? I don't think so. But we knew he would be a power guy who could hit in the middle part of the lineup, a good RBI guy.

"When I had him, he could steal 25, 30 bases," Piniella said. "He played a really, really nice shortstop. If he hadn't moved to New York, he'd probably still be there.

"You knew this kid, if he stayed healthy, would have a Hall of Fame career," Piniella said.

Rodriguez, now the third baseman for the Yankees, is headed in that direction as a member of the 500-home run club. Piniella, the manager for the Cubs, has kept an eye on Rodriguez's stats this season. It's hard not to. Does his former shortstop ever ask for tips?

"I saw him last year when I was in New York and he was struggling," Piniella said. "I went to Yankee Stadium to do an appearance, and I saw his wife [Cynthia] after the ballgame, and she said, 'You have to talk to Alex.'"

"I went over to his apartment on Park Avenue -- it's not a house, it's an estate on Park Avenue," Piniella said, laughing. "We talked for a long time and really enjoyed it. The next day, he hit a home run to win the ballgame in the ninth inning, and it made me feel good."

Rodriguez is a gifted player.

"He'll be the next guy to challenge the record Barry Bonds is attempting to break now," Piniella said of Bonds' pursuit of the all-time home run record. "Alex stays in good shape. At his age, he's at his zenith where the physical and the mental all come together. He's got another two, three years of that, and then staying healthy, you can see that a lot of these guys when they get into their mid 30s, they hit more home runs than they did when they were younger.

"He's a special talent."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.