- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007

NEW YORK — Alex Rodriguez walked into the Yankees clubhouse, changed from street clothes into uniform, grabbed a bat and hustled off to the batting cage, never taking off the white earphones playing his music. When he got back to his locker, he quickly moved into the trainer’s room, then across the back of the clubhouse to the players’ lounge.

He wanted to talk as little as possible about what he’s doing on the field, one of the great starts in major league history.

A couple of hours later, for the second time in an 11-game span, he homered with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to turn a loss into a victory, taking a wild run around the bases at Yankee Stadium, arms raised, smile showing off all those pearly white teeth, as fans screamed his name.

Finally, they’re lauding him, not lambasting him.

For the first time, Rodriguez might be living up to the expectations created when he signed a record 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers before the 2001 season.

A-Rod is off to an historic start, leading the major leagues with 12 homers and 31 RBI in 16 games after yesterday’s 7-5 loss to the Boston Red Sox. He’s batting .379 and his 12 home runs in the Yankees’ first 15 games matched Mike Schmidt in 1976 for the fastest in major league history. He’s the first to reach 30 RBI before his 20th game since Roy Campanella in 1953, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Now, Yankees fans aren’t dwelling on A-Rod’s postseason failures of 2005 and 2006. He’s turned the jeers to cheers, gotten people discussing whether he’ll eventually succeed Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds as the career home run leader. He has 476 homers at age 31.

“I haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s like everything he hits is a home run,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “I can’t relate because I can’t do it. It’s one of the waves you hope you can ride for a long time.”

The new, trimmer A-Rod even has his walkoff routine down as he flies around the bases, slapping third-base coach Larry Bowa, flipping off his helmet and getting mobbed by teammates as he approaches home plate.

“It kind of goes back to when you’re 9, 10 years old, making a [fool] out of yourself when you’re running around the bases, but you can’t help yourself,” Rodriguez said.

With a grand slam against Baltimore April 7 and Thursday’s three-run homer against Cleveland, Rodriguez became the first player to twice hit homers that turned losses into victories with one out remaining over such a short span since the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Dolph Camilli did it over seven games Aug. 15 and 23, 1942, according to Elias.

These cool April afternoons have been so different from the dark days of winter. Following Rodriguez’s second straight postseason flop last October, there was another offseason of discontent in the Bronx. Did Jeter need to embrace him? Would Rodriguez exercise the opt-out clause in his contract after the 2007 season to escape the unrelenting pressure and microscope of the Yankees, where the only lasting statistic is World Series rings?

Rodriguez spoke with his agent, Scott Boras, about what he should be doing. Since he arrived at spring training, Rodriguez has appeared far happier than during his first three seasons with the Yankees.

“People keep wanting to know Alex Rodriguez, and my point was, they don’t need to know Alex Rodriguez,” Boras said. “Your job is to perform as a baseball player. What people need to know about you, you can choose to not tell them or tell them.”

Has he ever performed.

“He’s showing his athletic ability. He’s not concerned about making a mistake,” teammate Johnny Damon said. “He already knows he works harder than anyone. He’s put together better than anyone. So he’s kind of just letting his athletic ability take over.”

From manager Joe Torre to general manager Brian Cashman to teammates, they all say Rodriguez has been more at peace with himself since spring training. On his first day at Legends Field, he dropped the pretense that he and Jeter were still buddies away from the ballpark. He acknowledged he liked having the biggest contract. At some level, the narcissism that every top athlete must have won out over the need to please.

“Just enjoying myself. I just wanted to come back and enjoy myself, regardless of what happens, just enjoy it as much as I can,” he said this week. “Sometimes you try to force things and manipulate things. This game is too hard to try to do all that.”

Rodriguez won the AL MVP award for the second time in 2005 but he rarely appeared comfortable last year. Fans booed him repeatedly, especially for his 24 errors. It was front-page news when he sunbathed shirtless on a hot day in Central Park last July, then made three errors that night against Seattle. His contract, the demands of Yankees fans and Rodriguez’s standards for himself appeared to be too much.

A big September left him with a .290 batting average, 35 homers and 121 RBI, but then he went 1-for-14 against Detroit in the Yankees’ first-round playoff loss, dropping him to 4-for-41 (.098) without an RBI in his last 12 postseason games dating to 2004.

Rodriguez roughly 12 pounds during the offseason and currently weights about 225, according to Boras. Kevin Long, the Yankees’ new hitting coach, went to Rodriguez’s Miami home and worked with him in Rodriguez’s batting cage. They shortened his swing, examined video, tried to cut down on upper- and lower-body movement, worked on trying to swing less forcefully and with a more technical approach.

Rodriguez also concentrated on trying not to dwell on previous at-bats when he goes up to the plate. He struck out his first two times up Wednesday and Thursday, then homered later both days.

In a way, by not trying as hard to be liked, Rodriguez is being appreciated more. After homering for the fourth straight game, he gave brusque answers in a live interview with the Yankees’ own YES Network at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, as if he couldn’t wait to rush off. After Wednesday’s game, he was almost out the clubhouse door without talking to the media before Yankees media relations director Jason Zillo intercepted him.

For now, the fans are on his side. But Rodriguez knows better than most how quickly that can change.

“He’s endured a lot, the fact that every day there was questions about him and what’s wrong,” Torre said. “Sort of nice to see him leave a man at third base and not have somebody ask you about it.”

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