Richard Justice

At this stage, A-Rod happy not to be in spotlight

At this stage, A-Rod happy not to be in spotlight

At this stage, A-Rod happy not to be in spotlight
NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez began Spring Training by telling us how good he felt. He talked about a new conditioning routine and his belief that he still had plenty of productive baseball in him.

He's not the key to making these Yankees go in 2012. There just are too many moving parts to put it all on one guy. Still, he's important.

"Huge," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Friday afternoon.

That's one of the reasons this home opener played out perfectly for the Yankees. First, there was newly retired Jorge Posada throwing out the ceremonial first pitch as a group of his former teammates stood behind the mound.

Afterward, he embraced them all one by one as a sellout crowd of 49,386 let Posada know how much they were going to miss him, too. And it was a day to remember how good the Yankees have been the past 17 years, with 16 playoff appearances and five championships.

"Jorge is one of the true warriors of our game," Rodriguez said. "One of the toughest competitors. He's fearless. Today, I think everybody showed how we feel about him."

That was the start of the fun. On a sun-splashed afternoon, new Yankee Hiroki Kuroda -- take a bow, Brian Cashman -- pitched an efficient eight-inning shutout in a 5-0 victory over the Angels. There was also Rodriguez, collecting three hits, including his first home run of the season, and stealing a base.

"There's no question in my mind if I'm healthy and have my legs under me, I can play at a high level and help the team win," he said.

A-Rod returned to that theme several times after the game. He played in just 99 games last season, and his .276 batting average was 25 points below his career average. He'd been as good as ever before undergoing right knee surgery in July. After that, the game became a struggle.

He was was asked if a first-inning stolen base was an indication that his legs were indeed feeling strong again.

"It's a sign of feeling good or stupidity, I'm not sure which one," he said. "My legs feel pretty good. For me, a good indication was playing on the turf for three days [in Tampa, Fla.], and feeling really good. When I have my legs under me and I'm healthy, I feel like I can do some good things."

When reminded that the home run was the 630th of his career, tying him with former teammate Ken Griffey Jr. for fifth place on the all-time list, he refused to go there. After all the years and all the missteps and all the things he probably wishes he hadn't said, Rodriguez has earned the status of elder statesmen as he begins his 20th season and approaches his 37th birthday.

"I love the game of baseball," he said. "I'm a fan. To go out today in pinstripes and play in the greatest stadium in baseball in front of the greatest fans in the world, it's all pretty special."

Over in the other clubhouse, Albert Pujols is answering questions about big money and a slow start, about expectations that can never really be met and all the rest.

Girardi wondered if maybe all the attention on Pujols had given A-Rod a bit more motivation for this weekend's Yankees-Angels series.

"I think the great ones like to measure up against each other," he said.

Rodriguez said he was happy to allow Pujols to have the place in the sun he once occupied.

"I'm actually kind of enjoying laying in the weeds and letting other players get the big attention and the focus," he said. "I can just kind of go about my business.

"But again, my focus is on the team. That's what has gotten me to this point, and I'm not going to change that."

Now, though, he's approaching a series of milestones. He's just 30 home runs behind Willie Mays on the all-time list. Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth are the only players ahead of him.

His relationship with Griffey is special, because they came up together with the Mariners and played with each other for six seasons.

"Obviously, Griff is special to me," he said. "He was a teammate, a brother and a mentor all in one. It was special today. You never dream of things like this. You dream of just being in the Major Leagues. You never dream of winning world championships or reaching milestones."

If he wanted to say more, about making history or leaving a legacy or any of the rest of it, Rodriguez refused to say so.

"I've gotten to where I focus on one day at a time," he said. "I just put in my work. When you drive to the park everyday, you try to figure out what you can do to help the team win today. ... If you take a blue-collar approach, anything is possible. [But] I'm part of a team. I'm trying to be one of the guys and help the team win. When it's all said and done, I can maybe look back and appreciate it."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.