10/27/09 2:00 AM EST
Adversity molded A-Rod's revival
Star looks to end tumultuous year with ultimate prize
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Problem was, there was only so much damage Rodriguez could do from the on-deck circle, where he stood wielding a heavy chunk of lumber -- and watching Mark Teixeira begin an at-bat.
The moment spoke volumes about how times have changed for A-Rod, transforming from the guy fans cringed for in a big spot to the one they clamor for. Rodriguez has helped carry the Yankees with an unconscious October, and it is taking him someplace he has never been before: the World Series.
"It's been a dream of mine since I was five years old to play in the World Series," Rodriguez said. "In order to win the World Series, you have to get there, and we've done that now."
It has taken Rodriguez 16 years of Major League duty to reach this point, six of them with the Yankees. During Sunday's wild celebration after New York won the American League Championship Series, Rodriguez found a quiet area of the champagne-drenched clubhouse and reflected on what he and the Yankees had just accomplished.
"I was just in the back with Mark Teixeira talking," Rodriguez said, "and a lot of great players have never had the honor to play in the World Series. So I thank the good Lord for putting me with the greatest organization and 24 great teammates. It feels really good."
The Yankees might have done it without A-Rod, but it wouldn't have been easy. In New York's nine games against the Twins and Angels, the 34-year-old slugger hit .438 with five homers, 12 RBIs and nine walks, feeding on late-inning theater and earning back the trust of the skeptical cheering section.
A-ROD REVERSES COURSE
Three of Rodriguez's homers came in the seventh inning or later to tie the game, prompting even Reggie Jackson to marvel after the Bombers' Game 4 ALCS win in Anaheim. Maybe Rodriguez isn't worthy of the Mr. October title just yet, but he can sure be Mr. October 2009.
"It's happened in the past," Jackson said. "It happened to me. When you see it, to me, you just kind of sit back and ... it's wonderful to see. I don't think you need an explanation for it. You just sit back and dig it."
One of the building blocks for A-Rod's great turnaround, as it turns out, was canceling out the white noise in his personal life, limiting his interactions with the media and letting his bat do most of the talking.
The Angels certainly listened -- Rodriguez reached base in his final eight at-bats of the ALCS, including five walks. Mike Scioscia knew the Angels might lose, but he declared to not let Rodriguez do it to them.
"He is a man on a mission," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It all started back when he came to Baltimore and hit that first three-run home run on the first pitch. He has been tremendous for us."
That May 8 home run against the Orioles seems like a distant memory now, but that's because Rodriguez has purposely tried to shut out what happened to him in the earlier part of the season. If four more victories would create the high point of Rodriguez's career, he likely hit the nadir this spring.
Within the span of several months, Rodriguez had to admit his past steroids use in a nationally televised news conference, undergo a career-threatening surgical procedure on his right hip and weather the release of a salacious tell-all biography delving into his personal life.
The early March hip surgery cost Rodriguez the first month of the regular season, but it was a blessing in disguise. Somewhere in a Vail, Colo., hospital bed, Rodriguez found mental clarity, escaping the Yankees fishbowl and spending long boring days staring at skiers descending the snowy slopes.
There were too many distractions in Rodriguez's life, and he would move to "trim the fat" and dismiss several advisers and hangers-on. He recognized his weakness as a communicator and made steps to limit his interviews, speaking in clipped sentences and bailing after a few minutes.
"All I've cared about all year is winning games," Rodriguez said.
The thinking was, if Rodriguez could come back and perform, his play would take care of everything else. And it spoke volumes, beginning with a home run on the first swing Rodriguez took in a Major League game this season. The ball cleared the left-field fence at Camden Yards, and it was instantly clear: Rodriguez loved being back and the Yankees had new appreciation for him.
"When Al went down, it was going to make it tough," CC Sabathia said. "We held it together for awhile until he got back. He made our lineup just that much better, our team that much better. It gave us a lot of confidence."
Relieved of statistical expectations thanks to his late start, Rodriguez would also homer on his final swing of the regular season, at Tropicana Field, to finish with exactly 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, making him the only player in history to accomplish that feat in 13 seasons.
Is that $30 million worth of performance? Perhaps not, but the summary of Rodriguez's season that will appear on the backs of his baseball cards next spring should be enough to validate everything that he has endured and help mold a new reputation.
"After going through surgery and going through tough times, he doesn't have to prove anything," Jorge Posada said. "He's the best player in baseball."
Yet Rodriguez wasn't done, as Nick Swisher says, making reporters "write all those nice things about him."
Derided for fading in the playoffs, best typified by Joe Torre's dropping him to eighth in the 2006 AL Division Series due to a mental fog, Rodriguez entered this year's ALDS hitless in 29 postseason at-bats with runners on base.
A fifth-inning RBI single in Game 1 forced everyone to stop counting, and from that point on, Rodriguez shut the old version of himself out and blossomed into the force the Yankees knew he could be.
"Alex is an unbelievable guy," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "It was just a matter of time before his ability would break out in the postseason. Nobody works harder than him in the offseason, nobody works harder than him in training and nobody, you'll find, has more ability than him."
He also doesn't need any more advice. Derek Jeter, preparing for his seventh Fall Classic, vowed to "just leave him alone," not wanting to fill Rodriguez's head with any other thoughts than crushing baseballs and playing solid defense. But the Yankees can tell A-Rod is as giddy as anyone about the opportunity he's about to get.
"He's fired up," Andy Pettitte said. "I'm just happy for him. He's been locked in, relaxed and has a lot of confidence. I'm fired up for him, man."
Rodriguez said that the final chapter should be "pretty incredible, especially with all the stuff I've been through this year."
If the conclusion is anything like the setup, you won't want to miss this ending.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.