At ease, A-Rod embraces October

At ease, A-Rod embraces October

NEW YORK -- If Alex Rodriguez's season were to be incorporated into a storybook, much like the one the Yankees third baseman proudly released this year, one of the first color-splashed images would be that first-inning popup on Opening Day, spinning in foul territory behind third base.

The ball dropped. Some 55,000 fans booed. A-Rod smiled, catching eyes with infield partners Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. They were grinning, too.

Everything was going to be all right.

Now that Rodriguez's historical and memorable campaign has come to a close, no further evidence is really needed to cement him as the American League's Most Valuable Player. Rodriguez's Major League-leading 54 home runs, 156 RBIs, 143 runs scored and .645 slugging percentage should make balloting a moot point.

So as Rodriguez thinks back to how he couldn't pluck Ty Wigginton's April 2 popup out of a cool blue sky, he sees a turning point of sorts. The Yankees were going to have their struggles, and certainly they had plenty to go around. But A-Rod wasn't about to let one blunder trip him up.

"Last year, I would have probably beat myself up for two days," Rodriguez says now, reclining on a golf cart outside the clubhouse. "I literally looked at Jete and Robbie laughing at myself, and they were laughing at me.

"I think the ability to laugh at yourself is something that I haven't been good at my whole life. I laughed at myself more this year than I have in my career. It's been fun laughing at myself and the guys having fun with me."

The Yankees' AL Division Series matchup looming, A-Rod's new approach is one that he believes will help him erase last October's bitterness.

For long periods of time, Rodriguez made a conscious effort to cut down on his availability to the media, providing clipped responses to queries before darting for an exit. As one scribe put it, he led the Yankees in walk-off interviews.

But it worked, as the baseball-focused Rodriguez led the AL with 14 April home runs. He liked the approach so much that even when the batteries on his perpetually carried iPod ran low, he kept the ear buds in, just to ward off the intruding microphones and cameras.

"I realized that I'm going to let my baseball do the talking," Rodriguez said. "I'm not going to talk. It's baseball, baseball, baseball. If I screwed up, I screwed up. If I did well, I did well. I didn't need to explain it."

While Rodriguez kept the media at arm's length, the 2007 season drew him closer than ever before to his teammates, the coaching staff and especially Yankees manager Joe Torre, who famously seemed to fracture his relationship with the soon-to-be three-time MVP by scribbling Rodriguez's name eighth in New York's lineup for Game 4 of last year's ALDS against the Tigers.

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Rodriguez would later recall feeling as embarrassed as he had ever been in his professional career when he caught a glimpse of the sheet posted at Detroit's Comerica Park. Doubly hurt as the Yankees' season abruptly ended in the Motor City, Rodriguez's relationship with Torre had traveled to the opposite end of the spectrum by Labor Day 2007, when Rodriguez invited every player on the Yankees' roster to a backyard barbecue in a posh Westchester, N.Y., suburb.

Rodriguez invited Torre, expecting that the manager would at least make a courtesy cameo, sampling some of the food and making the kind of quick escape Rodriguez seemed to have perfected with the press. But four hours later, Torre was one of the last stragglers at the party, and Rodriguez jokes now that he almost had to ask the skipper to hit the road.

"Joe and I are as close as we've been in my four years," Rodriguez said. "It took time to get to know Joe, and it took time for him to get to know me as a manager.

"Four hours later, he's still the last guy. We almost had to push him out of the house. I was really touched by that gesture."

So much so that when the Yankees celebrated their postseason berth, spraying the walls of the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field with champagne and blinding teammates in spray, Rodriguez spoke softly into the 67-year-old manager's ear, embracing him a lengthy hug while chaos rained down around them. The topic was that Sept. 1 barbecue, and just how much Torre's lingering presence had meant at the time.

"For some reason, when I got there, and Alex says, 'Thanks for stopping in, skip,'" Torre said, "for some reason, he thought I was going to say hello and leave. It was fun. It's in my neighborhood, so you know you don't have a long way to go home. It was very comfortable to be there.

"I'm glad it [meant a lot to Rodriguez], but I certainly didn't do it for that reason. I did it because I had a good time."

To this point, so have the Yankees. Rallying around Rodriguez's statistical contributions as well as the ones that do not appear in neatly formatted columns -- younger players have clung to A-Rod, like early-morning workout partner Melky Cabrera, and veterans like Johnny Damon have spoken about how Rodriguez's words have helped get them through periods of struggle.

"Alex is awesome," Damon said. "He never gets the credit he deserves for being a great teammate. People just know of him as a great ballplayer, but he's much better than that.


"I think the ability to laugh at yourself is something that I haven't been good at my whole life. I laughed at myself more this year than I have in my career. It's been fun laughing at myself and the guys having fun with me."
-- Alex Rodriguez

"He hasn't won a championship yet, but just the things he does -- he'll move the runners over, try to get them to third base to make it easier for the runners to get them in. He hustles. He's got to make sure to get the younger guys to follow him, because he's done it for so long."

With crinkly orange leaves falling to the fields of Central Park, the stakes are about to rise exponentially, particularly for Rodriguez. The Yankees' last two postseasons have ended abruptly in the first round, and A-Rod has been a non-factor, his 29 at-bats against the Angels and Tigers producing just three hits (.103) and just one for extra bases.

To this point, Rodriguez has seen six Major League seasons blend into the playoffs, hitting home runs and having his moments of strong play. Still, no team listing him on a roster has ever gone further than the ALCS, a fact that A-Rod's detractors are quick to point out.

Not only has Rodriguez never won a championship, the closest he has been to a World Series game in New York has been Game 4 of the 2000 Fall Classic, which he watched in street clothes from the box seats at Shea Stadium.

For his all-around career to be complete, there are those who would say Rodriguez needs a championship ring to show off, a memorable postseason moment like the one A-Rod witnessed seven Octobers ago, when Jeter took all the air out of the Mets' sails with a leadoff homer en route to championship No. 26.

Rodriguez's next center stage moment is soon to arrive. What he does with it will surely be the fodder for discussion and scrutiny leading into the winter months. But if he stumbles out of the gate, goofs up a throw or an at-bat, Rodriguez insists he won't be listening to any of the negativity that may result.

"Honestly, I don't even care about reaction," Rodriguez said. "I care about playing baseball and I care about winning. I haven't cared all year, so why am I going to start now?"

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