08/01/2007 5:40 PM ET
Kids get chance to see A-Rod up close
Slugger talks about looming No. 500 at Niketown event
By Lauren Kobylarz / MLB.com
Alex Rodriguez visited New York's Niketown to speak to 500 local kids and share his insights about the game of baseball. (Shira Yudkoff/MLB.com)
NEW YORK -- Five hundred squirming kids filled the main atrium of Niketown top to bottom Wednesday, one for each home run in Alex Rodriguez's soon-to-be career total.
One away from his 500th homer, Rodriguez took a seat next to the YES network's Michael Kay in the Manhattan superstore just hours before the Yankees' evening game against the White Sox. Rodriguez bantered back and forth with the kids as Kay asked him questions, starting off with the ubiquitous buildup surrounding No. 500.
"The buzz, the excitement, everything now really drives me," Rodriguez said.
Enthusiasm was what A-Rod got, as he was interrupted mid-question with chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" Rodriguez smiled and looked up, taking in the four stories of children hanging over the railings in the open room and waving as the cheering only got louder.
"You know you're going to do your thing, but it's just a matter of time," Rodriguez finally got out once the cheering died down.
As some of his biggest fans, many of the kids were hoping that Wednesday night would be that time.
"He's like the best player, and today I hope he's going to hit his 500th home run," said 13-year-old Shaquan Love from Harlem. "It would be the best, because I was here to see him before he played in the game. Now I can know where he's coming from and what he was feeling like on that day if it happens."
But even with the constant reminders of the upcoming milestone -- the 500 kids, the 500 balls, the obvious questions -- the kids got to understand a different side of the Yankees star that they watch on television.
"Alex was actually the first Yankee that I've been close to like that, and I loved what he said," said 15-year-old Dana Kamens from Lawrence, Long Island. "Now I know how he's extremely dedicated to what he does. To do what he does and that he's going to be the youngest player to hit 500 home runs, I knew that before, but seeing him in person just made it more real."
Kay varied his questions for Rodriguez, covering everything from his baseball hero -- Cal Ripken, Jr. -- to personal likes and dislikes. Any kid that scuffed his or her sneakers at Niketown on Wednesday can now say with confidence that A-Rod's favorite food is Japanese (or pasta or steak), his favorite actor is Michael Douglas, his favorite TV show is "Entourage," and that his favorite ice cream is chocolate chip with chocolate sprinkles.
"I got to hear what his favorite food is and stuff, that was my favorite," Love said. "He expressed himself to all the kids and let us know what he's really like. I learned his whole life in like an hour."
The group also got to sing "Happy Birthday" to Rodriguez, who turned 32 on Friday, yet another reminder of his record-breaking future as the youngest player to hit 500 homers. Rodriguez blew out the lone candle on a cupcake, though he wouldn't tell Kay what he wished for, before giving it to his wife, Cynthia, and his daughter, Natasha.
Rodriguez's gift, a flashy new pair of Nike cleats, sported an embroidered No. 500 on the tongues, but the third baseman wasn't about to jinx himself by pulling them on for Wednesday night's game.
"No," Rodriguez said with a laugh. "But I'll wear them after I hit it."
Niketown opened its big glass doors -- detailed with "Congratulations Alex, 499 and counting: Just Do It" and "Just Do It Alex" -- to make the day an unforgettable experience for the kids, who came from several local community groups, many of them baseball-oriented.
"They're ecstatic," said Adam Hymann, the director of the half-day baseball program at Hofstra University's summer camps. "When we first heard about this, we couldn't believe it. The kids are so excited to be here."
As they entered, the kids passed by a pyramid spread of 499 numbered baseballs -- including an obvious nook on the corner -- representing Rodriguez's current home run total. Attendants wearing A-Rod Yankees jerseys then handed the children raffle tickets, pens and Nike baseballs individually labeled from numbers one to 500.
Five lucky raffle winners got theirs keepsakes signed by Rodriguez after the question and answer session. Fourteen-year-old Gregory Bellantonio from Wantagh, N.Y., was the first to get his baseball signed.
"It was amazing," Bellantonio said. "I'm going to keep it and put it in a case. I'm going to tell them that I got a ball signed by Alex Rodriguez, and it was very, very cool."
Lauren Kobylarz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.