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Yankees had serious discussions with A-Rod about off-field antics

Top Yankees officials are apparently giving Alex Rodriguez a pass on his latest appearance in the tabloids, but they were annoyed and concerned enough about his extracurricular activities and a spate of often unflattering celebrity news stories that top team executives -- including owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner -- staged serious discussions with the superstar slugger in recent weeks about toning down his off-field act and focusing entirely on his well-known drive to be baseball's best player, according to people familiar with those talks.

While Yankees people generally seem to remain concerned about Rodriguez's inability to stay out of the gossip pages, they appear to not be overreacting to the latest A-Rod news -- which includes a narcissistic magazine photo spread and a Manhattan madam's claims to a tabloid that she received personal emails from Rodriguez and subsequently dated him -- since both developments appear to have occurred before the team's most serious talks with Rodriguez, even if they didn't become public until later. Thus the new revelations haven't spurred any new lectures from his Yankee bosses.

Club officials have even referred to the alleged episode involving the madam as being "part of his past'' and reflective of a difficult personal situation at the time. Rodriguez and his wife of five years, Cynthia, who have two young daughters, divorced last year.

The most serious of the heart-to-heart talks occurred right after Sports Illustrated reported on Feb. 7 that Rodriguez was one of 104 players to have failed baseball's 2003 survey test, as club officials used the steroid revelation as a platform to discuss avoidance of all controversy. That message was strongly reinforced again by top Yankees executives after A-Rod was rather indiscreetly picked up by cousin Yuri Sucart following a spring training game only days after Rodriguez named Sucart as the one who helped procure the steroids for him.

The Yankees' message was, "Put all the distractions behind you.'' And Rodriguez agreed, according to people familiar with those discussions.

"Clearly, you don't want any controversies on or of the field," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "As to whether I talked to Alex specifically, I'll just keep that private and in-house in the best interests of the club."

The team executives' talks with Rodriguez have tapered off while he's been rehabbing his surgically repaired right hip 2,000 miles away from the team in Vail, Colo. And the concern has lessened somewhat, as A-Rod is now spending 18 hours a day rehabbing under the guidance of noted hip surgeon Marc Philippon and rehab specialist David Lindsay. One person close to Rodriguez, concerned about the continuing bad press, described Rodriguez as currently being "sealed off.'' A-Rod's bosses are pleased that he has dedicated himself to the rehab, and people around him are now suggesting that he'll likely return to the team sometime during the first two weeks of May.

While Yankees brass frequently praise Rodriguez for his willingness to agree to the two-part hip surgery (an obvious attempt on his part to salvage this season) and dedication in speeding up the timetable for his return, people who talk to Yankees executives say they have been frustrated at times by Rodriguez's seeming inability to avoid bad publicity. According to people familiar with the situation, some describe it as a "constant maintenance'' on the part of Yankees officials, who are frequently advising Rodriguez.

Top-ranking club executives -- including the Steinbrenners, club president Randy Levine and Cashman -- elicited positive responses to the heart-to-heart chats, according to people briefed on these talks. Rodriguez, understanding that he had become a "magnet'' for bad and even embarrassing publicity, vowed to do his best to be more discreet and stay out of the press, and most importantly, promised to concentrate on the goal of living up to a contract that guarantees him $275 million. Rodriguez's drive to be a great ballplayer has been obvious since he left high school in Miami for the Seattle Mariners 16 years ago, but lately his baseball exploits are being overshadowed by personal escapades.

A-Rod's doctors originally projected that by undergoing the first of two surgeries earlier this month, he could return to play at "85 to 90 percent'' sometime in May, then have the second surgery after the Yankees' season is over. Reflective of the team's expectation to play through October, Yankees people have been calling it a November surgery, although it can be moved up to October if the Yankees don't play deep into that hallowed month.

Club officials actually have been heartened by their belief -- whether true or not -- that Rodriguez has seemingly begun to scale back his association with celebrity agent Guy Oseary, who they believe orchestrated Rodriguez's disastrous interview with Katie Couric more than a year ago as well as his embarrassing photo shoot in Details magazine that hit the stands recently. Though others close to A-Rod say that he is still in some contact with Oseary, who's better known as the agent to A-Rod's former companion, Madonna.

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