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02/21/11 4:15 PM EST

Slimmer A-Rod jokes about Super Bowl moment

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the same pavilion where Alex Rodriguez endured one of his most humbling moments, the Yankees third baseman came prepared on Monday with a line that brought the house down.

"Did anyone watch the Super Bowl?" Rodriguez asked, leaning into a microphone with a wide grin. "Great game."

As a full tent of news reporters and photographers erupted in laughter, Rodriguez's year began on a much less controversial note than some of his most recent ones. The spring of 2009, this was not.

Rodriguez had successfully deflected a stir that had even his teammates joking. During the Super Bowl, FOX cameras showed him in a VIP area at Cowboys Stadium, being fed popcorn by girlfriend and actress Cameron Diaz.

One report indicated that Rodriguez "went ballistic" at having that private moment flashed on millions of television screens across the globe. But A-Rod used different words to describe the incident: "Pretty humorous."

"Absolutely not, I was not upset about it," Rodriguez said. "But probably five or six years ago, I would have probably came out with some bogus statement and probably would have been upset. I thought it was humorous. Who would be upset about getting fed popcorn? It was pretty funny."

His Yankees buddies thought so, too, ribbing him with text messages the next day when the clip seemed to be replayed everywhere. Yes, these are less stressful times for Rodriguez, who says he has found a comfort zone that works for him.

It has been two years since Rodriguez sat in almost the same spot that he did on Monday, copping to use of performance-enhancing drugs over three seasons with the Texas Rangers.

Now, looking back, Rodriguez said that going through the shame of those events provided him with a sense of liberation.

"It's been great," Rodriguez said. "I think for the most part I've walked the walk. It's allowed me some space to enjoy the game more. I've always enjoyed the game of baseball, but over the past several years, it's the most I've ever enjoyed it, especially now."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that Rodriguez subscribes to a similar line of thinking voiced by Andy Pettitte, who also had his own PED admission to make in 2008 and said, "The truth sets you free."

"It takes a weight off of your shoulders living with, 'Is someone going to find out?'" Girardi said. "To me, you're able to relax and put it behind you and move forward. You concentrate on the things that you need to concentrate on instead of your focus being taken away."

In good spirits and largely controversy-free, Rodriguez said he is looking forward to the push for a 28th World Series championship after reporting to camp lighter, having shed about five pounds to drop his weight to 222.

His healing right hip, the one that required a March 2009 procedure that Rodriguez once feared might be career-threatening, was a major factor.

Rodriguez said that he visited with Dr. Marc Philippon, the Vail, Colo.-based specialist who performed the surgery, and Rodriguez was cleared to resume full baseball training during the winter.

"The last several years, I've probably been more 60-70 percent rehab and 30 percent training," Rodriguez said. "This year he actually gave me the green light to go 100 percent training and get ready to play baseball."

Being able to race around on plush infield grass and chase down bunts, as Rodriguez did outside George M. Steinbrenner Field on Monday morning, is much more enjoyable. He feels more flexible and less restricted in those activities.

During Monday's workout, Rodriguez was seen dropping advice on young third-base prospect Brandon Laird. Rodriguez has also been one of the voices pushing Robinson Cano in recent seasons, and he said he has come to embrace his status as an elder statesman.

"As a a leader of this team, I feel like I'm more in a leadership position and mentorship position, and that's fun," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez hit .270 with 30 home runs and 125 RBIs in 137 games for New York last season, but said he needs to step up in his role as the Yankees' third baseman and cleanup hitter.

"There's no question that I feel I can improve on what I've done the last several years," Rodriguez said. "For me, those years are really not acceptable, although they weren't too bad."

The personal expectations for Rodriguez are to play at an elite level, and thoughts of his last MVP campaign -- in 2007, when he slugged 54 homers and drove in 156 runs -- cannot be far from his mind.

"We all have responsibilities," he said. "I need to act the way I know how to act."

Girardi was asked if Rodriguez is past the point in his career where he can be expected to blast 40 or more homers and drive in well over 100 runs. Not surprisingly, the manager has faith in the big bat at the heart of his order.

"That's obviously a monster year, but I don't think he's past that point," Girardi said. "There are things that play a factor into that, and the biggest one is health. I think he's capable of having a big year."

And if he does, you never know. A slugging, healthy Rodriguez might wind up on your television screen again before you know it, hawking a product millions have already seen him enjoy.

"No popcorn endorsements yet," Rodriguez said, smiling, "but our lines are open."

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