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02/25/10 4:08 PM ET

Much has changed for A-Rod in a year

Now a champ, third baseman focused on replicating success

TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez has won. Alex Rodriguez has lost.

He has faltered in the postseason and he has come through in the clutch. He has been vilified and he has been beloved. He has embraced celebrity and he has rejected the spotlight. He has hit home runs.

He has polarized his fan base. He has made mistakes. He has confessed. He has represented baseball at its best and at its worst. He has hit more home runs.

He has won a World Series.

He is 34 years old.

"Now that you taste it, you just want to keep doing it again," Rodriguez said Thursday. "There's no question for me that it wasn't a monkey, it was a humongous gorilla that came off my back. And I felt that."

Now, with eight seasons and some $216 million -- plus a few historic incentives -- remaining on his contract, Rodriguez is about to embark upon a most critical segment of his career. These next few seasons are the ones that will define him in history -- either as a very good player who did a few special things, or as one of the most sensational, remarkable talents to play the game.

No pressure, Alex.

Pressure. Right. Remember that word? Pressure's the thing they wouldn't stop talking about back in the day -- not so long ago, before all the home runs and the helmet tosses and the pies in the face. A different A-Rod -- the old A-Rod -- might have crumbled beneath the pressure of last October, beneath the old Yankees expectations of victory. He might have cemented his legacy entirely the wrong way.

Instead, Rodriguez hit .365 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in the postseason, including .438 with five of the home runs in the first two rounds. When it was over, he sat and spoke sincerely in the bowels of the new Yankee Stadium, champagne leaking through his T-shirt, a cigar hanging out of his mouth.

Rodriguez, after thriving for 16 seasons in the big leagues and amassing uncountable individual accomplishments, finally had arrived.

"I've never had more fun in my life playing baseball than I did last year," he said.

He said those words Thursday, underneath a large white tent behind the Yankees' Spring Training complex at George M. Steinbrenner Field. One year and eight days earlier, Rodriguez sat beneath the same tent and admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs while with the Rangers.

There was outcry then, though most fans warmed to Rodriguez after his postseason heroics. Some never forgave him, and some never will. Rodriguez understands that.

But he also understands that many are on his side.

"I was at the very bottom, and a lot of people tried to give me a hand and encourage me," Rodriguez said. "I just felt a love and a lot of support everywhere we went -- not only with the Yankee fans, but across baseball. I think there was an appreciation for me coming out and doing what I did last year."

That includes what he did in October -- all the home runs, all the success. What's significant now is that Rodriguez is a champion. All those critics who said he wasn't anything until he won a World Series have little left to argue.

Rodriguez will be a Yankee for eight more seasons. A lot can happen between now and 2017.

"There might be a postseason or two where I don't hit four or five or six home runs," Rodriguez said. "And I know the way it goes. I'm going to get crushed, and that's just part of it. But the one thing that no one can take away is what happened in 2009 with our team, with the way we came together like a family, everyone checking their egos at the door and winning a world championship. The feeling of satisfaction that I got from that will forever be mine."

Taking such a public hit, as Rodriguez did last spring, was certainly difficult. Undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, as the third baseman did several weeks later, did not help. But combined, those two experiences allowed Rodriguez to better understand the context of his World Series victory.

He was able to appreciate the work and the effort that much more. And now he wants to do it all again.

"It becomes an addiction," he said. "You want to just keep winning."

Who can stop him? He has the formula. He has learned to relax, and more importantly, he has learned to keep his personal life personal, making himself scarce in the clubhouse and rejecting outside influence. It has helped.

"I think you can get worn out sometimes when you have to answer a lot of questions," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I just think that when you're at peace with yourself, there aren't so many things pulling at you. Your focus is always better."

"The one thing that no one can take away is what happened in 2009 with our team, with the way we came together like a family, everyone checking their egos at the door and winning a world championship. The feeling of satisfaction that I got from that will forever be mine."
-- Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez has, in a sense, been reborn. In 2009, he sat beneath the tent at George M. Steinbrenner Field, as broken as a superstar baseball player can be.

In 2010, Rodriguez sat beneath the same tent and beamed.

"It's definitely a much different day," Rodriguez said. "That's clear to me. Last year, obviously, was a very embarrassing day, and something that I wouldn't want to go back and do. But looking back, I certainly thought it was a very important day."

Now, Rodriguez can concentrate on bolstering his .305 career average, adding to his 583 lifetime home runs, working back into top defensive form. He has a chance to accumulate numbers never before seen in the game of baseball.

More than that, however, Rodriguez has a chance to do last year over again -- this time, without distractions, without monkeys or gorillas, without carrying the weight of accusations, allegations and rehabilitations.

There is baseball now for A-Rod. Nothing else.

"I think I'm going to be fine," he said. "If I do what I do and I stay healthy and I stay in the same frame of mind I was in last year, we're going to have fun this year."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.