THROUGH THE restaurant's open streetside window, 61st Street glistens in the cool rain, small puddles reflecting the white light of nearby buildings like sparkling footlamps. On Saturday night of a holiday weekend, only the occasional yellow streak of a speeding taxi obscures the slick blackness of the asphalt. Freshly cleansed, New York City lacks the heat, the traffic and the hurried indignation of its reputation. His wise friend, whom he calls the Bridge, told him New York could be like this. Working on a bowl of pasta with shrimp and chicken in red sauce, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez smiles as he remembers that conversation three months ago. ¬∂ Earlier in the day, as he drove himself to Yankee Stadium in his white Suburban, Rodriguez sang out loud to the raps of Jay-Z. Then, in his first at bat against the Boston Red Sox, his principal antagonists, he whistled a vicious 408-foot line drive off the centerfield wall with a swing he estimates required "50- to 60-percent" effort. Both of those pleasures--singing aloud and plastering a baseball with such ease--were not possible last season, not in the New York he knew in his first year as a Yankee, after being traded from the Texas Rangers and making the switch from shortstop. "It was by far the toughest year of my career," says Rodriguez, in his 12th major league season. "Just a monster."
Then the Bridge told him how it could change. Rodriguez gave Tino Martinez that nickname because the Yankees first baseman has become his personal link to the other made Yankees (that is, the ones with world-championship rings) such as catcher Jorge Posada, centerfielder Bernie Williams, closer Mariano Rivera and especially shortstop, captain and clubhouse sachem Derek Jeter.
"New York is a tough place to break in," explained Martinez, who was a teammate of Rodriguez's with the Seattle Mariners in 1994 and '95 before winning four World Series with the Yankees. "[The fans and media] almost want to see you fail at first, to test you. But once you win them over, they will carry you along with their support. Then it's like you're riding a wave. I'm telling you, they carry you."
Asked if he has won that kind of support from New Yorkers, Rodriguez, who was born in Manhattan's Washington Heights but grew up in the Dominican Republic and Miami, replies, "I feel like I'm getting close. I like playing at the Stadium. I like hitting at the Stadium. I totally see what he's talking about. I feel like I'm home. Last year felt like one long road trip. Last year I felt like I had to prove myself on every single pitch. Things have changed, especially in the last week."
In fact, things have changed considerably over the last three weeks. From May 7 through Sunday, Rodriguez hit .410 with seven homers and 21 RBIs. Not coincidentally the Yankees, who began the season 11--19, won 16 of 20 games during that stretch to go from nine games out of first in the American League East to 31/2 games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. For the year, all Rodriguez had done was take the major league lead in home runs (17), RBIs (49) and runs (43); become the first player to hit eight homers in Yankee Stadium in April and the first to drive in 10 runs in a game there; and move within two homers of becoming the first player (chart, page 41) to hit 400 before his 30th birthday. (He turns 30 on July 27.) Off the field he had prevented an eight-year-old boy from getting hit by a truck in Boston during an April road trip, and last week, upon making a $200,000 donation with his wife, Cynthia, to a children's mental health center in Washington Heights, had proudly revealed that he is seeing two therapists.
"Since then," he says, "I've noticed a big change from people. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and thanked me. I guess it made me more real, more human in some people's eyes. But I didn't do it for me. I did it for the children. They should know that being in therapy isn't a negative thing."
Nice season, but still not enough to fully melt New York's heart. Last Thursday, for instance, Rodriguez blasted a prodigious two-run homer to beat the Detroit Tigers 4--3, which prompted manager Joe Torre to say, "Even Jeter's jaw drops when [A-Rod] hits them like that, because he knows he doesn't have that kind of ability." The next morning's edition of The New York Times, however, was less flattering. "A-Rod's affairs do seem so melodramatic, so rehearsed, it is difficult to know where the rhetoric ends and the revelations begin," columnist Harvey Araton wrote. ".... [T]he story of how he stepped into the street to pull a child from stepping in front of a car circulated like news from Iraq. On the eve of another Red Sox series, here comes the admission on the television show 'Extra' that he is the self-help sultan of swing, seeing two therapists to help salve his emotional wounds." Accompanying the chilly column was a breakdown of Rodriguez's batting averages against winning teams (.269) and losing teams (.360), as well as his average in the late innings of close games (.167, in an 18-at-bat sample).
After his game-winning home run, Rodriguez was asked by a reporter if it was important for him to play well in the upcoming series against Boston to prove his mettle. In a rare display of anger Rodriguez snapped, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. For me, I couldn't care less."
Two days later Rodriguez was no less indignant when the subject came up. "One game in May against the Red Sox is supposed to define me?" he retorted. "That's such a load of crap I don't want to hear it. What if I hit a walk-off homer tomorrow and then do absolutely nothing in the [next] series against Kansas City? One at bat, one game doesn't make you a player. New York's about grinding it out every day."
Rodriguez began his Yankees career with a 1-for-17 showing in Boston and ended last year with a 2-for-17 slide in New York's four consecutive losses to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. He also was ruled out while running to first in Game 6 of the ALCS for slapping the baseball from the glove of Boston righthander Bronson Arroyo, a maneuver Red Sox ace Curt Schilling later called "bush league."
"[Umpire] Jim Joyce said the next time I should just run [the pitcher] over, which is allowed," Rodriguez says now. "I don't regret it. I did what I had to do at the time. I would never do anything bush league. I have too much respect for the game for that."
Those episodes against Boston have contributed to the notion, popular in New York, that Rodriguez has yet to earn his pinstripes, especially in the shadow of the venerated Jeter. In fact, Rodriguez has batted .281 and has an .865 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against Boston since becoming a Yankee, including the playoffs and last weekend when he reached base eight times in 11 plate appearances as New York lost two out of three games. In that same period Jeter has hit .215 with a .621 OPS against Boston.
Even Yankees legend Reggie Jackson, who has become a friend and counselor to Rodriguez, says, "I think there's always going to be some doubt until he does something [special] to be accepted at the pinstriped gates and into the pinstriped corral. He has control of that with the bat and ball in his hand. There's too much ability there for it not to happen."
Last year Rodriguez batted .286 with 36 homers and 106 RBIs, one of the best statistical seasons by a Yankees third baseman but A-Rod's worst since 1997. After having been traded to New York a week before spring training began, Rodriguez learned a new position, lived for two months in a hotel with his then pregnant wife (who gave birth to a daughter, Natasha, in November), contended with frequent questions and gossip about his sometimes cool relationship with Jeter, worried what the newspapers were writing about him and tried to accommodate unending media requests for his time. Amid these distractions Rodriguez developed a mechanical flaw in his swing in which he wrapped his wrists as they moved back to a cocked position.
"He was like that in spring training," New York hitting coach Don Mattingly says, "and because he was new to us, I thought, Well, maybe this is how he does it. But as [he struggled]--two, three months--I decided, O.K., maybe this isn't right."
Says Rodriguez, "I was so out of whack, there were times when Donnie would flip me balls and I couldn't hit them." Rodriguez stopped wrapping his wrists and finished up strong. After the season he went home to Miami and decided to overhaul his approach to playing in New York. As Torre put it, "He needed to unclutter his mind."
A voracious reader of the sports section, Rodriguez says he has stopped perusing the New York newspapers, though he admits to occasionally listening to talk radio. He also decided to limit his typically generous accessibility to the media. "Last year I was trying to please everyone, to be all things to all people," Rodriguez says. "I needed to concentrate more on just doing my job and helping the Yankees win. That's it. There's no place like New York. And I found out that until you go through it for a season, you really don't know it. Now I know the landscape."
"From Day One of spring training," says Mattingly, "it's been night and day from last year. Right from that first day he had his swing. You could tell right away that he was relaxed."
Without the flaw in his wrists or the anxiety with runners on (after hitting .248 in those spots last year, he was hitting .303 through Sunday), Rodriguez has rediscovered his smooth stroke and opposite-field power. He also was second in the AL in walks, with 31, and on pace for 100. "I do my best hitting when I'm walking," he says. "That means I'm relaxed and my pitch recognition is a lot better. That's what happens when you take stress out of the equation. I don't feel like every pitch is the last pitch like I did last year."
Rodriguez has made one other adjustment: He drives himself to and from Yankee Stadium rather than using a chauffeur, which he did last season. "It doesn't seem that important, but it's a big adjustment," he says. "It's my personal time to prepare for the game or wind down from it. I can talk on the phone, play music, sing, whatever, and it's just me. If someone's in the car with you, you're not going to be singing. Just having that time alone has helped me relax."
At the urging of Martinez, Rodriguez has joined a group of about a dozen Yankees who socialize and dine together after games. He says that such get-togethers were "rare" last year but have been convened "many times" this season. The group typically includes Jeter and Posada, both of whom are close friends with Martinez but notably failed to publicly support Rodriguez this spring after he was insulted by several Red Sox players, including rightfielder Trot Nixon, who called A-Rod "a clown." (Rodriguez says that several Boston players, including reliever Matt Mantei and outfielder Johnny Damon, have since apologized to him for their remarks.)
Says Posada, "The reason we didn't say much was because we wanted it to go away. If we answer them, then they answer us, and it keeps going on and on. It wasn't because we're not behind him. It wasn't because we don't love him. And we told Alex that."
Jackson believes Rodriguez has gotten through the worst of it. "There's nothing he's going through that I didn't go through twice," says Jackson, a Yankee from 1977 through '81. "It takes a year to get adjusted in New York. In Year Two, I made peace with Thurman [Munson]. With Alex, he's so good, [fans and media think] he's not doing enough unless he's doing the most. Maybe we're asking too much, but he can hit .340, drive in 145, hit 50 bombs. And in this ballpark? And in this era A.R.--After 'Roids? That's amazing."
back in the restaurant, dinner is finished and there is one more game against the Red Sox on the menu the next day. Rodriguez is asked if he understands what sticks in the craw of his critics. "Three things," he says. "The [10-year, $252 million] contract. Leaving Seattle and Texas. Never having won a championship. I understand the World Series is different. That's ultimately how you're judged."
He puts on a dark-blue wool coat. The rain has stopped. In a moment, with Cynthia at his side, he will walk into the cool evening. He has one last thing to say.
"I don't care if people like me or not," Rodriguez says. "Respect is more important."
Beating 'Em To the Punch
Through Sunday, Alex Rodriguez had 398 home runs and 58 days to go before he turned 30. Already the youngest to slug 350 homers (28 years, 282 days), he was on the verge of becoming the first player in his 20s to hit 400. Here are the five youngest players to reach that milestone.
|Footnote:||*Japanese Central League|