Alex Rodriguez steps up to challenge Yankees

TAMPA, Fla. – On the morning of the first game they’d play since Game 5, the night the New York Yankees all went home for the winter, Alex Rodriguez stood before them and, according to witnesses, gave the sort of speech that wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.

Somebody else would have told the Yankees it was time to commit in body and soul to the next eight months.

Somebody with credibility would have reminded them who they are. Somebody with clubhouse authority would have challenged them. Somebody who’d endured the terrible stuff, and drank the sweet stuff, and tested out as an honest-to-goodness Yankee. That guy.

Alex Rodriguez says he's been "on a mission" since the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs in October.
(US Presswire)

For long enough, that wasn’t A-Rod, not in their eyes and not in his own heart.

But on Friday morning, hours before they’d open their spring schedule against the University of South Florida and start all over again, sources said Rodriguez commanded the room for more than 10 minutes like he never had before.

“It was great,” said one witness. “I’d never seen that out of him before. I didn’t know he had it in him.”

The truth is, he didn’t.

Maybe it should have been easy to be A-Rod, the man-child, the All-Star at 20, the richest man in baseball, the Yankee, the three-time MVP, the champion, and the player most likely to take the home run record from Barry Bonds.

It wasn’t. Plenty was self-inflicted. Some was piling on. There was enough of both to smear the line so there was no distinguishing between the actual flaws and what had been fanned into perception.

He is 36 now. Gray is advancing on his head and chin. He played 99 games in 2011, enough with a bad knee and an achy thumb that it was his worst professional season.

I caught up to him near the parking lot at George M. Steinbrenner Field. South Florida players sauntered past, and he grabbed the hand of every one who offered.

“Good luck,” he said again and again. One called him “Mr. Rodriguez,” which caused him to sigh.

He felt good, he said. Healthy again. Ready to hit and win again.

“I was on a mission from the last out of Game 5,” he said, “to get my legs under me and get healthy.”

Rodriguez had spent early Friday morning in the batting cage, first hitting off a tee. Between swings he’d turn to David Adams, a 24-year-old minor leaguer, and explain the swing, its path, and why it should work.

[ Big League Stew: Ten best things about being a New York Yankees fan ]

Adams had met Rodriguez only once or twice before, and suddenly Rodriguez was talking hitting science with him, how the ball that gets deep can be hit with the same basic swing as the ball out in front of the plate, like Edgar Martinez used to teach a young A-Rod.

“I let him do all the talking,” Adams said. “I’m trying to get as much knowledge as I can. I’ll follow him around and see what I can learn.”

He broke into a smile.

“For any young guy,” he said, “it’s a great day.”

What Adams chases, Rodriguez has captured. In the early days of the 2012 season, Rodriguez should pass Ken Griffey Jr. on the all-time home run and hits lists. By the end of a healthy season, he could catch Willie Mays for fourth in home runs and Barry Bonds – just short of 3,000 – in hits.

While that’s great, partly because he so admires Griffey (whom he calls, “The Michael Jordan of baseball”), that didn’t get him out of bed every morning or send him to Germany for experimental knee treatments.

“My only focus,” he said, “is to help this team win a world championship.”

Alex Rodriguez sits in the Yankees dugout during batting practice in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 25. He had his worst professional season in '11.

So it was that the clubhouse grew quiet Friday morning and Rodriguez walked to the middle of the room. He’d perhaps spent most of a career working his way to these words, in their meaning and the way they’d be received.

He’d won all those awards, hoisted a trophy and made his money, but he’d also sat under that tent, humiliated by his use of steroids as a young man. Over the years, there was more. Much more. What wasn’t thrown at him, he frequently stepped in.

People grow up.

Rodriguez wouldn’t talk about his speech, or confirm he even gave one.

According to those in the clubhouse, however, Rodriguez talked about being “all in.” He advised them that, on that subject, there was only black or white, “no gray.” He said each of them – from the biggest superstar to the last guy on the 40-man – knew what “all in” meant. They’d had to have been “all in” just to sit in that room, to make it this far. And that every man knew exactly what his “all in” amounted to, in work ethic and dedication and sacrifice. He asked them to find that within them, to bring it every day, all season long, for the good of the Yankees. For the good of themselves.

“Amazing,” a witness said. “The guys were drawn to him.”

Somebody had to say it.

And, on a Friday leading to his 19th big-league season, Alex Rodriguez became that somebody.

Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
MLB bat boy Chico Herrera gets his big chance
Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game made history but never defined him
How Drew Brees could doom the New Orleans Saints
Clippers’ feud with Clipper Darrell epitomizes franchise’s blunders

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 2, 2012