TAMPA, Fla. – Not a hint of smugness. Not a trace of gloating. Contentment instead of conceit.
Was that A-Rod or the Dalai Lama?
Nearly a year to the day after the superstar everyone loved to loathe laid bare his steroid-stained past and lamented his repeated postseason failures in a large media tent outside the New York Yankees spring training facility, Rodriguez sat in the same tent and marveled at the startling turn of events.
He'd gone from what he described as "rock bottom" to a World Series champion, removing once and for all the proverbial monkey off his back that for him had been a "humongous gorilla." The climb to the summit had been "magical," "exhilarating," and the pinnacle was "forever mine."
Was that A-Rod or Edmund Hillary?
Sir Hillary, after becoming the first man to scale Mount Everest, devoted his life to building hospitals and schools for the Sherpa people of Nepal. Nobody expects such selflessness from Rodriguez, who dodged a question about a promise he'd made a year ago to help spread the word among America's youth about the evils of steroids. Another championship or five will do.
Especially if he maintains his newfound tranquility. The player who most exemplified greed, self-centeredness and style over substance, and who on occasional chatty days would confess to being tortured by the trappings, said three times in a 19-minute news conference that a key to the Yankees' title was "checking egos at the door."
He really seemed to believe it. Maybe because the results were so spectacular. As if he could hardly believe his own memory, Rodriguez recapped his year of enlightenment and splendor, beginning with the news conference where he explained the drug use exposed in a Sports Illustrated article.
"It was obviously a very embarrassing day and not something I'd want to go back and do," he said. "But looking back it was a very important day, a necessary step. I've done a lot of growing up and realized a lot of things."
Next came seven weeks of rehabilitation from hip surgery near his doctor in Vail, Colo. "I took that time to look in the mirror and be honest with myself," he said.
Rodriguez made his season debut in Baltimore on May 8. "I kind of divorced myself from the idea of numbers and from personal achievements and really bought into the whole team concept of winning ballgames," he said.
It took a while to work off the rust and approach 100 percent physically. A month in, he was batting .207 and taking more hits from the media than he was delivering on the field. But the team was winning, and soon he heated up.
"You started seeing him run a lot more the second half," manager Joe Girardi said. "That was a sign for me that his legs were feeling really good. He had bounce in his step, his hip wasn't bothering him." Meanwhile, Rodriguez recognized he was no longer a pariah. Getting knocked off his pedestal put him within arm’s reach of anyone who wanted to give him a supportive hug or fist bump.
"I got so much love and respect from people – texts and phone calls from current players and former players," he said. "I'd hit a double or get to third base, every player, I mean hundreds of them, tapped me on the butt and said it's a great thing you did, we're behind you and congratulations. So I definitely felt the energy changed for the better and I hope that continues."
Rodriguez finished the regular season with exactly 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in thanks to a two-homer, seven-RBI game on the last day. It was his 13th 30-100 season, the most in baseball history, but more importantly he entered the postseason with sky-high confidence. He hit .365 with six homers and 18 RBIs in the 15 games it took to win the World Series. His OPS was an otherworldly 1.308.
"From as low as any person or any athlete can probably be to where we ended up in early November is something I'm in awe of," he said. "I couldn't believe it was us, that it was me it was happening to."
This from the former teen prodigy who became a certified cheater, perhaps the most gifted player in baseball history who indisputably became the highest-paid, found serenity by giving in to the greater good.
Was that A-Rod or Frank William Abagnale?
As a World champion and rehabilitated egotist, what's next for Rodriguez? He's about to begin his 17th major league season yet he's only 34. He's under contract through 2017 and ought to become the all-time home run and RBI champion by then. There's plenty of time for him to revert to putting personal achievements ahead of the team, to undergo another confidence crisis, to find his name splashed across the tabloids for clueless off-the-field behavior.
For now, though, the Yankees are enjoying the tranquil Rodriguez in what so far has been a tranquil training camp. Mariano Rivera(notes) sits at his locker whistling "Empire State of Mind," the Jay-Z song that became the World Series anthem. Andy Pettitte(notes) leads a group of players to chapel. New acquisition Curtis Granderson(notes) dazzles hard-bitten beat writers with his playfulness and polish.
Rodriguez soaks it in. An ancillary benefit of his new approach is appreciating his teammates. He talked about them being a family and said that for the first time he invited guys to work out with him in the offseason. And twice he mentioned having lunch with Mark Teixeira(notes), as if that was something special.
"We both talked about what an amazing feeling it was to be world champs and how badly we want to do that again," Rodriguez said. "It becomes an addiction. You want to just keep winning."