As a teenager, Alfredo Aceves would step onto the hardwood court, impersonating the Chicago Bulls forward's every move. Between Aceves and a close friend — an avid Michael Jordan fan — they would moonlight as basketball's top tandem.
That all changed in 1995, when the Bulls traded for Dennis Rodman. During one game, Aceves watched as the 6-foot-7 forward locked down 7-foot-1 center Shaquille O’Neal despite the height disparity. The defensive effort mesmerized Aceves.
"I'd start rooting for Rodman because he could slow [O'Neal] down," Aceves said. "It's like, 'What can he do to stop him psychologically? Because physically you're not going to stop him.' Shaq was like King Kong in height, and Rodman wasn't tall or strong compared to him. So that's where my Rodman fanhood started –– his will to take on Shaq. His will to take on guys that were playing more talented."
Now the Red Sox' substitute closer, Aceves will draw on Rodman's ferocious personality as he replaces Andrew Bailey. By now, it's common knowledge that Aceves selected his No. 91 jersey to pay homage to Rodman, who donned the number in Chicago.
But the reliever's reverence for Rodman extends beyond the number. It's borderline fanatical. When Aceves studied Rodman's demeanor on the hardwood, he quickly noticed tidbits of himself.
"His mindset was 'I may not be at that level, but I can compete and if I can compete, then I have a chance to win,'" Aceves said. "He had the idea that 'It doesn't matter how tall or big you are, I'm ready,' and it's just like me. I've taken that as a positive. I'm never thinking about the possibility of losing against the big hitters."
Like Aceves, Rodman was never flashy or athletic. He contributed by perfecting the fundamentals, becoming a seven-time rebounding champ and seven-time NBA All-Defensive first team honoree. And Rodman earned five NBA rings to show for it.
Inspired by Rodman's winning reputation, Aceves purchased Rodman's autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be. Behind closed doors, the pitcher has frequently chatted with teammates about his fervor for Rodman.
After a year alongside Aceves, third basemen Kevin Youkilis can detect the psychological impact Rodman's play had on the 29-year-old.
"He loves Dennis Rodman. That's his thing," Youkilis said. "He's read [Rodman's] book and has that type of attitude. The great thing about Aceves is that sometimes he just doesn't care what people are worrying about. He's just doing the stuff that he thinks is right, getting it done and going out and being a bulldog on the mound."
But that nonchalant attitude also mired Rodman in controversy. During his career, the forward clashed with opposing players, was arrested on occasion and lived a flamboyant life –– dying his hair and sporting a bevy of piercings and tattoos.
Although Aceves finds Rodman's volatile persona intriguing, he's been the model teammate in the clubhouse. On the mound, however, he can be erratic with his pitch selection, and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia learned the hard way.
"If you don't know him yet, he's very unpredictable," Saltalamacchia said. "You're just not sure. There's times where he'll say curveball and throw a fastball. It's been [like] that before. But he's a special player."
Throughout his four-year career, Aceves has showcased a penchant for success like Rodman, amassing a 24-3 record –– with four saves –– to post the highest winning percentage for a pitcher in baseball history.
When the Red Sox were reeling last September, Aceves dazzled in relief and tossed 25 frames, including 7 1/3 in a span of four straight days. In Saltalamacchia's eyes, that mental toughness reminded him of Rodman.
"You can see last year, he took the ball every time it was given," Saltalamacchia said. "He would go start, the next day then come back and throw two innings later. You know, so he'll definitely grab the ball and be up for any challenge whatsoever, so I can see [some Rodman] mentally tough-wise."
Aceves has never met Rodman in person, but he identifies with the forward. As Rodman was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year, Aceves said he experienced a sense of pride. He would love to meet him someday.
In the meantime, Aceves will slug it out through his own championship chase. But when he marches onto the mound to close it out, Aceves plans to channel his inner-Rodman with every single pitch.
"Whether you're 150 pounds or three meters, I'll do whatever it takes to win –– a plan to win," Aceves said. "Rodman always had a plan to win."
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