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Consumer Reports

Rat-whacker prowls streets of New York | (KRT) NEW YORK — Meet Manuel Rodriguez: handyman by day, self-appointed rat-whacker by night.

Rodriguez has quickly become an urban folk hero by prowling his upper West Side street with a homemade bat, which he used to smash a career-best 15 rodents on a recent Sunday night.

"When I see them coming, I get into position," said Rodriguez, 53, clutching his custom-carved pine plank, crouching low. "I can't miss."

M-Rod, as some call him, is a one-man murderers' row.

His field of dreams is not a house built by some guy named Ruth but the strip of concrete bordered by trash cans and piled-high garbage bags in front of his New York City apartment building.

"I can hit seven - maybe nine - rats a night in front of my building alone," the Dominican immigrant said, cradling his club as cumbia love ballads wafted from the apartment next door. "Over three days, I kill at least 21. Easy."

At a time when the city is at war with rats, Rodriguez is an unsung soldier. Complaints soared 29 percent, to 19,358, during the 2003 fiscal year, prompting a crackdown by City Hall.

Rodriguez's night job starts after he puts in an eight-hour shift as a handyman, six days a week, at a homeless shelter. He returns to the basement apartment he shares with his wife, Justina, and their 13-year-old daughter, Adaiana, and showers, puts on a cotton shirt and baseball cap and hits the streets.

First, he hunts for planks from neighborhood garbage. The ideal bat is about 3 feet long and 4 inches wide. Then, he painstakingly whittles each one a 10-inch handle with a kitchen knife, and waits till dark.

"Last night I cracked two bats, so I always have to find more," he explained.

Rodriguez's rat-smashing season begins when the temperature soars and the garbage out front begins to boil with life.

"I start when the rats get to be too much," he said as cool evening breezes carried the still-ripe odor of rubbish left all day in the sun. "They run right through our legs. At night, we can't open our doors or the rats come right in."

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He hunkers down in the dark, motionless for about 20 minutes at a time, and studies the movements of maybe 100 rats.

After tracking their patterns, he expertly prods the trash with his plank and pounces. Dropping into a split-second squat, his face barely above the pavement, he splatters his prey with a single sideways swat.

"He should play for the Yankees!" said Dulce Gross, 36, a home-health-care attendant and mother of two who joined his growing fan base, which chills on the stoops, sips sodas and watches the action into the night. "His stance is good and his swing is perfecto."

Rat batting is often a team sport. Rodriguez enlists his extremely understanding wife, adventurous neighbors and even game passersby to bang on trash can lids and flush out his doomed quarry.

With the first clatter, Rodriguez was already in position, and hitting for distance, Monday night. One furry kill cleared the full width of his building and two stoops. It whizzed by spectators, who lunged out of the way. His pulped prey plopped down about 30 feet away - another new record.

But rat batting is more than just another night game for Rodriguez. It's his battle to clean up his rat-infested block. "We ask for help but (his building's owners) do nothing," said Rodriguez, taking a breather and a smoke. "Everyone is scared of the rats, especially the (children) out here."

Building super Augusto Jimenez, 57, however, cries foul.

"It's because people don't keep their apartments clean," he said, claiming he does his best managing 112 apartments in six buildings on the block. "When the exterminator comes, they don't open their doors. It's not a problem with maintenance, the manager or the landlord. It's a problem with the tenants."

Rodriguez and his neighbors deny that, and offer even a stranger tours of their immaculate, albeit crowded, flats.

"These rats aren't from our apartments. They run our street," said Rodriguez, after putting the oozing pelts into a pile for sanitation workers to clear in the morning.

Phone messages left with Rodriguez's landlords went unreturned.

Meanwhile, M-Rod's rat batting has some of the neighborhood's better-heeled residents thinking of moving.

"I was stunned," said Andre Birleanu, 24, a fashion model who said he pays $2,300 rent for a one-bedroom pad on the block. "This is supposedly a great neighborhood, with Columbia University and all these restaurants. Then this guy kills mountains of rats and shows how really dirty it is."

Others are celebrating a new-found local hero.

"The man deserves a medal," said Alan Eiland, 40, a business information analyst and father of two. "Now, I hope he moves on to these damned pigeons."

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© 2004, NY Daily News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services