Turnaround artist

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. – Game-day runs in jagged lines, paths that eventually lead to the box just left of home plate.

In road-gray pants and matching T-shirt, Alex Rodriguez angles his forehead downward, as though to begin the momentum of eight hours.

From the old dingy clubhouse here, along the dingier corridor, through the dank passage beneath the stands, into the sunlight. Then, 20 minutes later, back again into the gloom.

"Borz!" he shouts at his friend, longtime New York Yankees bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, and jerks his head toward a heavy steel door.

From the opposite side of the clubhouse, Borzello lifts himself from his chair.

"Guy never quits," he says, wearily, admiringly.

Rodriguez, destined perhaps to become the game's greatest right-handed hitter, or there with Aaron and Mays and Robinson and Foxx, has torn through the first two weeks of 2007.

He has hit career home runs 465 through 471. He has batted .371. He has driven in 17 runners, nearly a third of the Yankees who have scored over nine games.

He has lived these two weeks on the barrel of his bat, turning around high, hard fastballs with deliberate, rejoining ferocity. Ask Joe Nathan. Ask Chris Ray.

For the moment, in the coolness of early April, with the Yankees otherwise taking volunteers for their starting rotation and chasing steadiness in the field, Rodriguez has veered from the broader thoroughfares of autumnal stress and pinstriped birthrights.

He's just a guy with a bat.

Or trying to be.

Even that is open to deliberation, and in his own clubhouse.

"He already works harder than everybody else," center fielder Johnny Damon said. "He's already stronger than everybody else. … Now I don't think he's afraid to fail. What went on last year, he wanted to do so well for everybody. This year, he's not afraid to make a mistake. He's going after it."

Borzello, Rodriguez's confidante, shook his head slowly.

"I don't think that's caused the turnaround," he said. "I think he's confident, honestly, in his swing right now. Last year, I don't think he had any confidence in the mechanics of his swing at all. It forced him to become the type of hitter he isn't, which is a straight guess hitter. He's a reaction hitter. He's got the quickest hands in baseball but wasn't using them.

"I don't think fear of failure is a problem. Fear-of-failure people are guys who go on the DL when they're struggling. He played 160 games."

It's complicated if you let it be.

Rodriguez sits on a staircase inside McAfee Coliseum, 30 minutes to kill before the batting cages come free. He had two hits Friday night, both singles, both hit hard. He's eager to hit again, kneading the bat handle as stadium personnel passes, stepping lightly over his outstretched leg.

"I don't know," he says. "I think last year was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. It was so difficult. Now, it's like, what else can be said? I've thought, 'Let's just play and enjoy it.' I'm just comfortable. I'm comfortable with whatever happens."

He says again, for emphasis, "It was one hell of a challenge. It's the proudest I've been for not breaking down. But it took every inch of fight. … And as tough as it got, I was out there every day."

Baseball sees two weeks of familiar A-Rod. Rodriguez sees two months, beginning the day he arrived in Tampa for spring training. Longer even, when he counts the work this winter, killing the body drift in his swing, recommitting his hands, shortening the bat's arc. He's back on the high fastball, the one that skipped over the top of the strike zone last season, the one he couldn't get, the one he began guarding against. Now, Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "He's not giving you any part of the plate he can't get to."

Maybe it's just a game. But it's his game, and it has been almost since the moment the Seattle Mariners took him first in the 1993 draft. He arrived in the big leagues 10 months after he signed out of high school, was a regular two years later, and the next 11 years were like little the game had seen.

"I maintain there is no such thing as bad A-Rod," an American League scout said. "He's still one of the greatest players to ever play the game. I'll take his bad because there's so much good. … I know he has his issues, but his issues aren't problems for me."

He became a regular All-Star, agreed to the largest contract anybody had ever heard of, was an MVP and took it all to New York, where he again was an MVP. The Yankees had stopped winning championships before he moved in, but it was Rodriguez who bore the responsibility, even as the offense continued to be dynamic and the pitching staff became mediocre.

He has hit .241 in four playoff series for the Yankees, a slump that began with the rest of the lineup in Game 4 of the 2004 American League championship series against the Boston Red Sox, the sort of thing that brings public derision and seems to have found mainly him.

"He's got to deal with that every day," Torre said. "Do I think it's fair? No. It's reality. He's called attention to himself by having the ability he has and making the money he makes. Now he's playing for the Yankees."

He paused for a smile and added, "It's piling on."

Torre continued, "It's just something you have to deal with. It's created by our society's need to win. And winning is the only answer to all the questions."

Indeed, it appears Rodriguez has become the symbol for a period of Yankee heartache, in which the organization stalled on 26 championships after beating the New York Mets in 2000. He is rich, the Yankees are rich. He is talented, the Yankees are talented. He plays in October, the Yankees play in October.

And then, together, they fail.

Along the way, Rodriguez suffered the daily analyses of his relationship with Derek Jeter and now the daily speculation regarding the contract clause that allows him to leave the Yankees at the end of the season.

Nine games into his fourth season in New York, Rodriguez says he is calm, comfortable. He says it's not about the numbers, though the production may afford him more room for calm and comfortable.

"It has everything to do with the inner struggle of the game," he says. "Last year was the first time I'd been on a baseball field and had lost control of the game. When it ended, I started preparing again. I don't know where it ends. I'm taking it one game at a time and trying to have as much fun as I can right now. I'm having a good time, and I'm removing myself from the results."

He picks himself up from the top step and heads off along those jagged lines again, back along the path to another baseball game, to whatever else is out there.

"The labor of baseball," he says, smiling. "The labor of baseball."

What to Read Next