Alex Rodriguez warms up for play in the first spring...

Alex Rodriguez warms up for play in the first spring training game at the George M. Steinbrenner Field. (March 3, 2010) Credit: Getty

Whatever he is, on the field and off, Alex Rodriguez enters the 2010 season with a label no one can take away from him: Champion.

When the Yankees won the 2009 World Series in six games over the Phillies, Rodriguez had one of his many burdens lifted - the idea that he wasn't a clutch player. Upon reporting to spring training this year, he said a "humongous gorilla came off my back.''

A-Rod wasn't just along for the ride in October and November. He had one of the greatest postseasons ever, batting .365 (19-for-52) with five doubles, six home runs and 18 RBIs.

He hit three game-tying home runs in the seventh inning or later. He doubled in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series. He won the Babe Ruth Award from the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America as the postseason MVP.

He had hungered for moments like those. In his 16th major-league season, he finally got them.

Rodriguez said the way he was treated during the offseason was different. A player who always has been a lightning rod for controversy became instantly respected, if not instantly beloved, for what he did in the postseason.

"There's no doubt,'' Rodriguez said in the clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field before a recent spring training game. "I got so many calls and letters from fans, guys in our own league and guys in other leagues. There was definitely a lot of love.''

One former athlete whom Rodriguez thought of in the offseason was a former Yankees prospect named John Elway. (Yes, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback was a Yankees minor-league outfielder in 1981 before switching to football full-time.)

It took Elway until his 15th season to win the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. He won it again the next year and then retired.

"I've talked to John a lot about this in the past,'' Rodriguez said. "We both played a long time without accomplishing the most important goal - the only goal, really. There's no doubt that we both enjoyed it probably as much as any two players can enjoy it.

"His whole message was, 'That's the last thing left. That's what you have to get. When you accomplish it, it's going to be the sweetest feeling in the world.' ''

Was he right?

"Absolutely,'' Rodriguez said. "No comparison to anything else. Nothing you do individually would ever compare, not even a fraction, of being part of a World Series team.''

It doesn't erase the constant swirl around Rodriguez, whose off-field troubles have been well-documented. A new round of trouble followed him in spring training as federal authorities sought to interview him about his ties, if any, to an alleged HGH doctor.

But the 34-year-old, the highest-paid player in American sports history, seems to have learned how to deal with the attention his star power brings.

Last year, his admission of past performance-enhancing drug use, which was followed by major hip surgery, left his future in doubt on and off the field. He responded by having a superb regular season, batting .286 with 30 home runs (leaving him 17 shy of 600 for his career) and 100 RBIs. And then he had a postseason for the ages.

And he'd like to do it again. The way Elway did.

"[Mark Teixeira] and I went out to eat and that's the first thing we talked about,'' A-Rod said. "How sweet and how special the feeling of satisfaction was. And how much hungrier we are to do it again. It's like an addiction. Once you taste it, you want to do it again.''

Countdown to 600

Alex Rodriguez needs 17 home runs to become the seventh player in major-league history with 600 or more home runs. He is tied for eighth on the all-time list:

762 - Barry Bonds
755 - Hank Aaron
714 - Babe Ruth
660 - Willie Mays
630 - Ken Griffey Jr.
609 - Sammy Sosa
586 - Frank Robinson
583 - Alex Rodriguez
583 - Mark McGwire
 

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