A-Rod arrives, focused on winning title

A-Rod arrives, focused on winning title

TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez's 2005 season was as good as any player's in Major League Baseball. He led the American League in home runs, slugging percentage and runs scored, placed in the top four in batting average, RBIs and on-base percentage, capturing his second AL MVP Award in three years.

None of that matters to the 30-year-old superstar. The Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, sent home early after just five games in which he went 2-for-15.

"It was very painful," Rodriguez said Monday, shortly after arriving at Legends Field for the first time this spring. "When you play as miserable as I did in the most important five games of the year, that kind of fuels you going into this year. It fuels me tremendously, because I feel that my career won't be complete without a world championship.

"This year, to use a poker term," he added, "we're all in."

Aside from A-Rod's obvious crack at his offseason poker scandal, it is clear that the third baseman is extremely focused on filling in the one gaping hole on his resume.

"[The MVP Award] is a consolation, but if you don't win in October, if you're not a world champion, nobody really cares about anything else," he said. "I came here for one reason. Winning, that's it. I could have won MVPs in Texas. I did that."

"He's got so much ability and he demands so much of himself, that's where he runs into some potholes," said manager Joe Torre. "He won't allow himself to not succeed, he puts so much pressure on himself."

Rodriguez posted one of the finest all-around seasons in baseball last season, hitting .321 with 48 home runs and 130 RBIs, but it is his dismal performance in the postseason that stuck with him throughout the winter.

Then again, the Yankees' collapse in the 2004 AL Championship Series also stuck with him.

"It will never go away; I'm still hurting from being up 3-0 against Boston," Rodriguez said. "Those things fuel you, but you can't really pay back. The only thing you can do is cherish the moment."

For Rodriguez, the moment he speaks of won't come for more than seven months, assuming he and his teammates are able to carry New York back to the postseason for a 12th consecutive year.

In his eyes, the acquisition of Johnny Damon will play a big part in making that happen, as the Yankees added one of the top leadoff hitters in the game to an already potent lineup.

Rodriguez believes that during New York's title run from 1998-2000, it was Chuck Knoblauch's pesty presence at the top of the lineup that set the tone. A-Rod thinks that Damon can have that same impact on the current crop of Bronx Bombers.

"I think Johnny is the best pickup that we could have possibly made this winter," he said. "We're in a situation where we have the best leadoff hitter in the game and the best No. 2 hitter in the game."

After his struggles against Boston in the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez heard nothing but negative things from fans during the winter. His performance against the Angels was even worse, but he sensed a different tone from people this offseason. Maybe it was the MVP season, perhaps it was something else, but whatever it was, he took notice of it.

"I feel like people are beginning to cheer for me," Rodriguez said. "People are saying, 'A-Rod, this is your year.' The New York fans have been unbelievable to me this winter, which is surprising to me because I played like such a whatever [in October]. I felt a lot of support."

With the 2006 season set to start in six weeks, it's time for A-Rod to return the favor by helping the Yankees win their first World Series since 2000.

"Unless you win here, nobody [cares] about hardware or MVPs," Rodriguez said. "The only thing that really matters is being a world champion."

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