Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since 2004.

A quarter-century ago, a Yankee with Hall of Fame numbers returned to the field in his late 30s after sitting out an entire season.

This player was one of the greatest athletes of his generation. His tenure with the Yankees, though, had been pockmarked by controversy as he feuded with his own team.

When Dave Winfield returned to the Yankees in 1990 after missing the previous season following back surgery, he was 38 years old. It was unclear if he was going to be the player he used to be.

Except to him.

"Even though I missed a season with back surgery," Winfield said this past week in a telephone interview, "once I knew I was going to be healthy, I was sure that I was going to come back and be OK. I was at a real peak of my physical and mental abilities to play the game, so coming back at that age didn't bother me."

Alex Rodriguez didn't exhibit the same level of confidence when he returned from a yearlong steroid suspension this season at age 39. In fact, he admitted he didn't know what to expect.

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But both supremely talented players overcame their year on the sideline. Rodriguez, while slumping now, went into Saturday night's Yankees game at Atlanta batting .255 with 26 home runs and 69 RBIs in 117 games.

His relationship with the Yankees, once filled with acrimony and legal proceedings, has improved to the point that the team will honor A-Rod for his 3,000th hit with a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 13.

Winfield, now a special assistant to MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark, started the 1990 season with the Yankees before getting traded to the then-California Angels for pitcher Mike Witt on May 11.

Winfield went on to hit .267 with 21 home runs and 78 RBIs in 132 games with the Yankees and Angels. Unlike Rodriguez, who had played in only six games in the field going into Saturday night, Winfield was the designated hitter only 10 times in 1990 and only three times after the trade.

And unlike Rodriguez, who was hitting .138 (11-for-80) in August going into Saturday night, Winfield actually got stronger as the season went on.

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In August, Winfield hit .333 with two home runs and 13 RBIs. In September and October, he hit .287 with six home runs and 25 RBIs.

"There's nothing that I would attribute it to," Winfield said. "I went to where I was wanted, which may have helped. When I went from the Angels to Toronto [in 1992], I played in 156 games at 40."

In 1992, Winfield hit .290 with 26 home runs and 108 RBIs for the World Series champion Blue Jays and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. He retired in 1995 -- A-Rod's second big-league season -- and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Rodriguez has two years left on his Yankees contract. He most likely will not get into the Hall of Fame because of his steroid-tainted past.

Rodriguez, who turned 40 on July 27, has said the time off last year helped his body heal after two major hip surgeries.

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Winfield said he had little doubt he would be able to recover from back surgery even though he turned 39 on the final day of the 1990 season (when he went 2-for-3 with a walk and three RBIs against Oakland). It was a satisfying year.

"I just figured, if I go from zero to having a normal season, I'd be Comeback Player of the Year," Winfield said. "The age -- I felt good about it. I just felt physically and mentally good."

Winfield indeed was named AL Comeback Player of the Year, an honor that Rodriguez also might earn.

As for Rodriguez, Winfield said he did not want to speak about any individual player because of his position with the Players Association, which A-Rod once sued during his scorched-earth approach to fighting his suspension. Rodriguez eventually dropped all of his lawsuits and now is back in baseball's good graces.

Winfield said he saw Rodriguez recently at a business function in New York.

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"I've known him a long time," Winfield said. "I saw him last week and gave him a hug. I'm just happy for him that he's performing well."