Gammons: Fresh starts for A-Rod, Cabrera
Yankees, Tigers superstars put eventful 2009 behind
Alex Rodriguez remembers catching himself singing while driving home after games last September.
"We were winning. I was getting stronger and stronger physically," Rodriguez said. "It was the happiest I [had] felt playing baseball since my first three years in Seattle. All that stuff I'd carried around was lifted."
He goes back to that February morning in 2009, when he sat down in his house in Miami, and admitted he'd taken steroids back in his Texas days. The night before, even privately, he couldn't bring himself to accept the blame, but he was convinced he had to do it, and from his first admission answer through the rest of the interview -- which lasted close to an hour -- he hyperventilated and sweated and seemed close to melting.
"I never thought I'd get through it," Rodriguez said, but he did, with a water break and a walk around the house.
In many ways, Rodriguez bared his soul as his insecurities sweated out of his pores.
When the interview was over, he stepped outside into the parking lot.
"I think," he said, "I'm free."
Freed from simulated perfection, free from thinking the whole world was watching.
"As the season went along, it no longer was about me," A-Rod said. "It was about winning, and when that final out came in the World Series, I realized that it is all about the Yankees and winning, not me. It just keeps getting better. This is the happiest I've felt in Spring Training since those early Seattle days, when I was a kid."
That was before the monster contract Rodriguez signed with the Rangers after the 2000 season made him the richest player, before the move to New York made him a poster boy, for the Yankees, for Page Six, for the tireless reporters of celebrity gossip Web sites.
Now, it's not as if he's as invisible as Reid Gorecki.
He's reportedly dated Madonna, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz.
"I wish," he said, "[If] I'd dated half the women I'm supposed to have dated, I'd be having a lot of fun."
The cloud of "proving he's a Yankee" and the repeated reminders of not winning a ring are gone. So are the physical problems that led to the March 9 operation by Dr. Marc Philippon in Vail, Colo., to repair Rodriguez's right hip labrum.
"This spring is the best I've felt in years," says Rodriguez. "The team really helped me along, taking Dr. Philippon's recommendation that I take every sixth day off and rest. It took most of the season to regain my flexibility and strength, but by September, it was almost there. Now after the work I did this winter, I feel tremendous."
Last spring, Rodriguez had to answer to and for the Sports Illustrated report that he'd tested positive in 2002, when the players agreed to what were supposed to be anonymous testing. This spring, he acknowledged that like Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran of the Mets and dozens of other professional athletes, he is going to have to answer questions about ties to a Toronto doctor, Dr. Anthony Galea.
"Dr. Philippon has talked to the club and explained everything," Rodriguez said. "This is fine."
The Rodriguez that used to carry himself with such an aura is now relaxed, normal and exchanging jokes with Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira, laughing and smiling. It was suggested that maybe he should install some recording device in his car and put out a record.
"You don't want that," A-Rod said. "I cannot sing. Only alone in my car."
Rodriguez believes that when his friend and adviser Reed Dickens convinced him to confront reality, it "changed my life."
Fresh start for Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera also confronted his own reality this offseason.
When the Tigers had their FanFest this January, Cabrera participated and faced the media and the fans.
"I knew what they would ask," says Cabrera. Of course, it was about that incident in the heat of the pennant race last season, when Cabrera went out drinking with some White Sox players and ended up in jail.
Cabrera this winter underwent counseling and gave up drinking.
"I'm not an alcoholic," he said. "But I made a mistake and I needed to make some changes. I think people who know me know who and what I am. But I needed to make some changes, move on and put that one incident behind me. Talking about it has made it easier to deal with."
"He's been great," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "All along, he's never made excuses, he's faced the music. He made a mistake. Fine. But he's a terrific kid, and he's a great hitter. He's a big key to our ballclub."
Cabrera won't turn 27 until April 18. He's already a .311 lifetime hitter with a .925 career OPS. Through the last six seasons, he's averaged 33 homers and 115 RBIs a year.
"I just want to get better, help us win and put the questions behind me," Cabrera said. "I know I have to do it myself."
Detroit was 11th in the American League in runs scored last year. With some concerns about Austin Jackson's immediate offensive impact (he had a .296 on-base percentage in the second half of the season for Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre last season), signing Johnny Damon for the No. 2 hole was an important move, especially considering that Damon has played between 141 and 159 games a season for 14 years. That allows Carlos Guillen to DH. And it makes Magglio Ordonez's comeback a huge key to contending.
Now 36 years old and in the final year of his contract, Ordonez has seen his home runs decline from 28 to 21 to nine over the last three seasons, his RBI total drop from 139 to 103 to 50, his doubles from 54 to 32 to 24, his OPS from 1.029 to .870 to .804. Granted, Ordonez struggled for nearly half of last season when his wife was sick, but he is now in his best shape in years.
"I feel great," says Mags, who has shorn his locks, "and think I can play four more years. At least I hope so."
Last season, his side was bothering him, which teammates say didn't allow him to get to fastballs on the inner half of the plate.
"When he was great," says one former teammate, "he would kill that ball inside -- like the ball he hit to win the  pennant, then set pitchers up for the ball away which he loves. He hasn't been able to do that."
This spring, Ordonez is back on the ball inside.
Leyland believes the Tigers' bullpen will be a major strength. They signed Jose Valverde to close, and early indications are that Joel Zumaya is throwing gas.
"We have some big-time power arms and depth out there," says Leyland, referring to Ryan Perry, Zach Miner and left-handers Bobby Seay, Daniel Schlereth, Brad Thomas and Phil Coke. That is, if Coke doesn't end up in the starting rotation.
"He was a starter in the Minors and we think he has the stuff to start in the big leagues," said Leyland. "If we need him."
Thomas was a one-time Twins phenom from Australia who underwent shoulder surgery in 2004, pitched in Japan and Taiwan and has come back throwing in the 90s.
They know Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are going to be their front three starters.
"We have to see about the other guys," said Leyland, meaning Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson.
"It's early," Leyland said, "but Dontrelle is throwing better than any time since we got him."
Willis is worth dreaming on.
When it came down to it, Rodriguez faced his demons, and admits, "It was the most painful day of my life sitting there at my house admitting what I'd done."
Cabrera admitted and confronted, and may be on the road to a historic career.
Most of us admit and confront and apologize and our neighbors may not even know it. Everyone sees A-Rod and Cabrera, everyone knows their nowhere, and they have to move on under the glares of the unforgiving.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.