- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. This year, Alex Rodriguez has been surrounded more often by teammates than reporters. He's able to talk baseball instead of money.
A year after signing his record $252 million contract with Texas and putting up MVP-type numbers in his first season for the Rangers, Rodriguez is more at ease.
And that's how he prefers it.
There's less of the chaotic scene of last spring, when his 10-year contract was still new and his every move and word were scrutinized.
Much of his time in the clubhouse this spring is spent talking and joking around with Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez or Rafael Palmeiro along their wall of lockers some were calling "Hall of Fame Row."
A-Rod works the entire room, talking to starters and reserves alike, or taking a minute to encourage a player who just found out he's been sent back to the minor leagues.
The Rangers have several team leaders and their share of superstars, but Rodriguez is still the most visible player. This is truly "Alex's team" as owner Tom Hicks often refers to the Rangers.
"He just exudes leadership," said outfielder Gabe Kapler. "He's truly an incredible talent, and he's brought that not only to the field but to the clubhouse.
"He does a very good job of making sure he talks to everybody," he said. "He really makes an effort to befriend everybody in the clubhouse."
That includes Carl Everett and John Rocker, players known as much for their tempers as their outstanding play. Rodriguez called both after the Rangers acquired them in offseason trades.
Everett was suspended three times in his two seasons at Boston for an outburst with an umpire and constant arguments with managers Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan. Rocker had a troubled relationship with teammates in Atlanta and Cleveland after he made remarks about gays, minorities and others in a Sports Illustrated interview before the 2000 season.
Rodriguez hit .318 with an AL-leading 52 homers breaking Ernie Banks' 43-year-old record for homers by a shortstop and a career-high 135 RBI last season.
But his All-Star performance on the field wasn't enough to save the Rangers.
Texas finished last in the AL West for the second straight year. They were 43 games behind the Seattle Mariners, where Rodriguez played for the first seven seasons of his career.
"I kind of divorced myself from the game for about a month after that and just relaxed. I had to get away," Rodriguez said. "I was proud that I played in 162 games and grinded through the whole summer, but it was tough at times."
An offseason of moves by new general manager John Hart, including the return to Texas of two-time AL MVP Gonzalez, and the optimism of a new season re-energized Rodriguez.
Rodriguez came to camp more relaxed in his role as a team leader, and his teammates were more at ease with him.
"All of a sudden, people call you the leader just because you are there for them," Rodriguez said. "You're more involved with people's lives. From that standpoint, you become more comfortable, you become more approachable."
As the Rangers went through a managerial change and their on-the-field struggles last season, Rodriguez gradually worked into his role. He often took teammates to dinner and spent time off the field with them trying to set a tone to carry into this season.
After a 22-42 start last year, the Rangers were 51-47 after June 15 the fifth-best record in the AL during that time.
"He kind eased his way into the leadership role. He didn't want to step on any toes, he wanted to feel the clubhouse out," said second baseman Michael Young. "By the end of the year, people knew that this was a guy we can lean on when we need something."
Young became an everyday starter midway through his rookie season. He found Rodriguez to be an invaluable source of information and encouragement
"He works very well with the young guys, the guys that are going to be teammates of his for a long time," said Palmeiro, a first baseman going into his 16th season. "I don't think it's hard for a player of his stature to really step up and make sure things are headed in the right direction, especially with the young guys."
Manager Jerry Narron, who replaced Johnny Oates in May after the Rangers started 11-17, calls Rodriguez "arguably the greatest shortstop of all time."
But Narron says he's even better off the field.
"The greatest gift you can have is when one of your premium stars is also a quality guy, a great person and is a guy that genuinely has a team interest," said Hart. "Alex has certainly demonstrated that. He just likes to make sure everybody is comfortable being involved with everybody."

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