So this is Alex Rodriguez, as comfortable now in his own skin as maybe we'll ever see.
His resume now reads "World Series champion." He's on the cusp of becoming only the seventh man in more than 100 years of major-league baseball to join the 600-homer club.
|A-Rod, pictured at the premier of the new 'Twilight' movie, is more relaxed than ever. (Getty Images)|
"Well, not many have done it," he was saying during a conversation in Los Angeles two weekends ago. "What are there, five, six who have done it?
"There's no question it's a special number. Three-hundred, 400, 500 ... those are all special milestones, no question.
"Funny thing is, I'm enjoying this game now more than I ever have. I appreciate the game now more than I ever have. It makes you feel grateful for all the teammates you've had over the years, and for all the great lineups."
He's 34 now. His surgically repaired hip is holding together. He missed several days a couple of weeks ago when he strained his groin. Every so often, Yankees manager Joe Girardi makes sure to give him a DH day so A-Rod can rest his legs.
The home runs are not coming as frequently as they once did, and neither are the All-Star votes. Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria was chosen by fans as the American League starter at third base. A-Rod finished more than one million votes behind Longoria.
Yet there is no question, his home pinstripes are standing at attention a little more crisply, hanging a little more proudly.
Maybe it's the World Series title. Maybe it's the passing of his steroids news conference two springs ago, a hurricane of charges and admissions that probably made A-Rod stronger when he realized he had come through the other side. Maybe gaining more distance from the dissolution of his marriage has uncluttered his mind.
"You know, some things got off his chest," Girardi says. "He was going through some other issues off the field. And I think he got beyond them and it really helped him.
"That's the one thing, too, I think people fail to realize in this game. As people, we have real problems, too. Just because we get to do what we love to do and we have wonderful salaries doesn't mean we're not isolated from problems. We have family issues, we have children who are sick, we have children that miss us. We have parents who are sick that we have to deal with.
"And sometimes, I think, people forget that. And you're under a microscope whenever you go on the field. So when you walk through that [clubhouse] door, you've got to be able to put ... for example, my father, he's in the last stages of Alzheimer's. I have to be able to put that [aside] and make sure that my focus is here. I'm sure people have to do it in other jobs. But everything that we do is seen by everybody."
More so for A-Rod, who set himself up as a lightning rod the minute the ink dried on his $252 million contract with Texas.
"It's what I told Hanley Ramirez when I first had him [in Florida]," Girardi says. "I told him, 'Look, Hanley, you have this wonderful ability of being extremely talented. But it's also a curse. Because people are never going to take their eyes off of you when you play. So any little thing you do to mess up, they're going to see it. It could be as simple as not running hard through the bag one time.'"
"Where with other guys you may not notice it, you're going to notice it because he's got every tool. And Alex is the same way."
On deck for A-Rod right there with 600 will be the debate surrounding the legitimacy of his status within the club. His permanent record is stained by his admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs -- there is no getting around that.
Perhaps he, Barry Bonds (762 career homers, first overall) and Sammy Sosa (609, sixth) should be categorized separately from Hank Aaron (755, second), Babe Ruth (714, third), Willie Mays (660, fourth) and Ken Griffey Jr. (630, fifth). Juicers and Non-Juicers. Whatever.
Odd that as A-Rod approaches 600, the most noticeable thing about his game this summer is that it's not as powerful as it's been in the past. The days of him crossing the 50-homer barrier (54 with the Yankees in 2007, 57 with the Rangers in 2002, 52 with the Rangers in 2001) appear to be permanently in the rear-view mirror.
|All-time HR leaders|
|1. Barry Bonds||762|
|2. Hank Aaron||755|
|3. Babe Ruth||714|
|4. Willie Mays||660|
|5. Ken Griffey Jr.||630|
|6. Sammy Sosa||609|
|7. Alex Rodriguez-y||597|
|8. Frank Robinson||586|
|9. Mark McGwire||583|
|10. Jim Thome-y||574|
The 30 he hit last year were his lowest homer total since 1997, when he was 21. But because of the spring hip surgery, he also played in the fewest number of games (124) of his career in '09.
Even given that, though, his home-run ratio in '09 (one every 17.83 plate appearances) was significantly higher than it is this summer (one every 23.93 plate appearances).
"One thing I've never worried about in my career is power," Rodriguez says. "It comes in bunches for me. One thing I focus on is balance at the plate, and driving in runs to help my team win."
His balance has been uneven this year, Rodriguez says, but that -- and his swing -- started to come back in a mid-June series against the Mets during which, of all things, he went 0 for 11.
"I hit a couple to the warning track and a couple of balls on the line," he says.
It's still not translating in the numbers. Over the past 28 days (prior to Tuesday's two-homer outing) Rodriguez is hitting just .225 with a .296 on-base percentage, four homers and 19 RBI in 20 games.
Regardless, whether he's hitting .225 or .325, or popping a homer a game or a homer every 20, he still works maniacally on his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long. And he still watches video with the gusto of Roger Ebert.
Ask some of the Yankees who don't stretch back as far as Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada about their impressions of sharing a clubhouse with A-Rod, and the first words out of the mouths of CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain -- in separate interviews -- tie into how hard A-Rod works.
"Pretty impressive," Sabathia says. "And his baseball IQ is off the charts. That's something you don't know about a guy until you play with him. Situations, pitch sequences, everything."
Yet at the same time, Girardi speaks of how much more relaxed Rodriguez appears to him this year. Maybe the trick isn't simply balance in a batting stance. Maybe it's achieving balance in life as well.
"Most of all, I think he's having fun," the manager says. "I always tell people that over the last couple of years, a big part of the day that I've looked toward, when we're at home and we come in from batting practice and guys are in the lunchroom, I hear him laughing so loud."
New York Yankees
Girardi tells of how last year it was Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano who were teased mercilessly in that lunchroom, and now that Cabrera is playing in Atlanta it's Cano who is left to fend for himself, and of how Rodriguez is right in the middle of it, mixing it up with the guys.
"Like music to my ears," Girardi says.
Realistically, Rodriguez was saying a couple of weekends ago when he was plodding along with 10 home runs (he's at 14, and is hitting .276 with 67 RBI through Tuesday), thoughts of 600 are not yet dancing through his head.
"It's hard to really get into that," he was saying. "It's taken me a long time just to hit 10 home runs, so I'm not too excited yet."
His manager has not noticed any negative personality tics with 600 in range. No over-eager swings. No signs of internalizing the pressure. Personality-wise, Girardi says, he's the same.
Nevertheless, the manager says, he may remind Rodriguez to relax at, say, 598 or 599. If the time is right and the message needs a carrier.
"As a manager, I've always worried about milestones," Girardi says. "Whether it's home runs or stolen bases, whether it's a guy hitting his 100th home run or whether it's some other big thing for him, I always worry.
"Because they try too hard. Not that I think they don't think they're going to get it, but they want to get it out of the way so people stop talking so much."
With Rodriguez, there always is that threat. You never know when he's going to say something or do something that causes more eye-rolling and tabloid headlines. You never know when another Madonna or Kate Hudson will appear, when opponents will scream that he's broken more unwritten rules in a Dallas Braden moment, when his name will appear on the patient list of a Canadian doctor accused of selling human growth hormone.
On the field, as Girardi says, "you realize that sometimes no matter what he says or does, he's in a can't-win situation. If he drives in 150, well, you're supposed to. If he drives in 120, why didn't you drive in 150?"
On the front-porch of 600, it's strange that inner peace has chosen this particular moment to find one of the most insecure superstars ever to blaze across the baseball sky. But we all grow into our shoes at different paces.
"He's not going to stop there," Chamberlain says. "We'll be having this conversation at 700 homers.
"We might be having it at 800."
When you're A-Rod, expectations always are at war with peace.
It's a battle with no end in sight.