BRIARCLIFF MANOR, N.Y. - It started with a January text.

Shortly after the year had turned, Joe Torre looked down at his phone and saw a message from his former player and, at the time, beleaguered Yankees superstar, Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who was set to return from a yearlong suspension in a few months, reached out to his former manager for advice. Torre, never one to complicate anything, kept the wisdom simplistic.

"I just said, 'Go play baseball,' " Torre said Thursday at his Safe at Home Foundation's Golf and Tennis Classic at Sleepy Hollow Country Club. "At this point, anything you say is just what you say. It's not going to make any kind of impact on anybody because they are going to wait and see what you're doing."

Torre said Rodriguez also wanted to "make sure the air was clear" after having "some issues" with things he thought Torre had said about him in the past. But the Hall of Fame manager said he has a "friendly" relationship with the third baseman and doesn't believe fans should be rooting against him because of his alleged past sins.

"He paid his debt," Torre said. "He was suspended and hopefully he learned something from it. Obviously, he's been determined to come back and play the game that he's loved. I know baseball has been a huge part of his life. He just craved it . . . Once people pay their penalty, you can't root against them. It's not the right thing to do."

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Rodriguez may have turned around many Yankee fans' opinions about their oft-maligned superstar. He is hitting .272 with a .373 on-base percentage and .511 slugging percentage.

His 54 RBIs are third on the team (behind Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann) and his 20 homers were second on the team and also were tied for seventh in the AL entering play Thursday.

"He's just playing baseball now," Torre said. "The fans have embraced him. He fought his way back from a hole. He started and was hitting seventh in the batting order, now he's in the middle where he's used to hitting. He's been a force.

"I'm happy for him. To miss a whole year at that age [39], there was never an issue of his ability to work at it. With all the physical problems he had and missing [last] year, I think it's been remarkable how consistent he's been."

But Rodriguez is hardly the only reason why manager Joe Girardi is at the helm of a first-place team, Torre said.

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"His bullpen developed," Torre said. "I mean, I was a genius in 1996. I only had to manage six innings. I had Mariano for two and Wetteland for one. When you look to end the game, you need to get the outs. Now that they're healthy, it looks like they have great balance out of their bullpen."