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A-Rod's ascent to respectability is complete

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
A-Rod's ascent to respectability is complete
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Two years after his nadir, Alex Rodriguez seems comfortable in his own skin

TAMPA, Fla. – For those who had Alex Rodriguez(notes) in the middle of some crazy/embarrassing/silly/beneath-a-Yankee ordeal by now, two years after he copped to the steroids mess and returned promising a new and more genteel A-Rod, are you convinced?

For you who doubted he could fold into the program, bring his bat and glove and leave the rest at home – satisfied yet?

Will you ever be?

Or, is it too late for Alex Rodriguez?

Is he too accomplished, too stained, too salaried, too pinstriped and/or too not-Jeter to be saved?

Well, that's OK with him.

"I've never enjoyed the game as much as I am now," he said Friday afternoon.

Two Mays ago in the visitor's dugout at Baltimore's Camden Yards, back from hip surgery, a steroids admission, a divorce and a crisis of reputation (and still lugging the burden of a championship-less career), Rodriguez had talked the talk.

He was remorseful. He was going to become a better person, and a better player, and a better teammate.

"I've made a lot of mistakes in my career and I've paid the price," he'd said. "You look in the mirror and you realize it's time to grow up."

And you'd rolled your eyes.

"I miss simply being a baseball player," he'd said.

And you'd believe it when you saw it.

Rodriguez arrived at George M. Steinbrenner Field a week ago for his eighth season as a New York Yankee, or one more than he was a Seattle Mariner. He will turn 36 this summer, by which time he probably will have passed Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) for fifth place on the all-time home run list, and will be approaching Willie Mays for fourth.

He's been on this road a long time, going on 18 seasons now, and if he missed a mud puddle along the way it was purely accidental. Neither, however, did he miss a fastball, unless it was thrown in October, and even that has been rectified.

He has his ring, of course. Assuming you don't count the occasional stray popcorn kernel, he has regained his dignity.

There are parts of his past he may never live down. Judging by early returns from Hall of Fame voters and their attitude toward the likes of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and even Jeff Bagwell, Rodriguez could hit more home runs than anyone who ever played and be shut out. He shrugged.

"My whole thing is focusing on the things I can control," he said. "I'm only focused on what I can do now. There are a lot of chapters left. Then I'll just take my chances on anything that'll happen after that."

Meanwhile, the antagonistic contract negotiation was not his, but Derek Jeter's.(notes)

The superstar with something to prove is not he, but Mark Teixeira(notes).

The guy who must backpedal on his quotes is Hank Steinbrenner, not Alex Rodriguez.

Instead, he comes into spring training through the back door, mischievously asks, "Did anyone watch the Super Bowl?", reveals he's knocked off 10 pounds and then sets up his locker by the door and stays out of everybody's way.

Somewhere down the list of possible Yankee issues – the rebuilt Red Sox, the vapory starting rotation, Joba's diet, Russell Martin's(notes) knee, Jeter's range, Teixeira's Aprils – Rodriguez says his hip is fully healthy for the first time in two years and insists, "I expect more from myself."

He hasn't played a full season since 2007, when he won his third – and last – American League MVP award. He batted .270 in 2010, furthering a trend in which his batting average has fallen at least 12 points for three consecutive seasons. And yet, though he missed another 25 games, he hit 30 home runs again, and drove in 125 runs, second in baseball to Miguel Cabrera's(notes) 126.

As quickly as a conversation about the hip starts, he waves it away.

"People aren't interested in excuses," he said. "They're interested in performance and production. Period."

Asked what relationship he saw between Rodriguez's recovering hip and the drop in some offensive areas, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "I think it's a combination of what he went through with the hip and his age."

The hip, presumably, they could fix. The age thing, well, the man still has seven years under contract. He's not allowed to get old yet. Hank Steinbrenner won't stand for it.

"The idea," Rodriguez said, "was to get back to how I felt pre-hip surgery."

And?

"It's been fun," he said.

Fun and quiet.

He smiled.

"I love that," he said.

Reminded it had been almost two years since Camden Yards, since the day he talked the talk, Rodriguez recalled the date exactly.

"May 8th, 2009," he said. "Then I had to live it, to walk it. Until I did that, it was only going to be hot air."

Still not satisfied?

Then you'll never be.