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A-Rod healthy in body and spirit

Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice with the team

Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice with the team during the first full spring training workout for position players. (Feb. 20, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. - Alex Rodriguez couldn't believe the line of questioning.

"You guys are getting soft," he joked to reporters about 11 minutes into his nearly 19-minute news conference yesterday afternoon. "All you talk about is popcorn and [me] losing five pounds."

Given the kinds of questions A-Rod has had to answer in the interview tent here in previous years, he was more than happy with the tone of the inquisition.

First, the popcorn.

During Fox's Super Bowl broadcast Feb. 6, a cutaway showed A-Rod being fed popcorn by his girlfriend, actress Cameron Diaz. An ensuing report, which went viral, said he went "ballistic" afterward, but A-Rod said that was erroneous.

"Absolutely not. I was not upset about it," he said. "Probably five or six years ago, I would have come out with some bogus statement and probably would have been upset. Actually, I thought it was humorous. Who would be upset about getting fed popcorn? It was pretty funny."

This after sitting down on the dais and, before a reporter could ask a question, asking one of his own. "Anyone watch the Super Bowl?" he said, drawing a big laugh.

The day's primary topic, of course, was A-Rod's weight and his overall physical condition. The third baseman, who turns 36 in July, said he weighed in at 223 Sunday, down about seven pounds from the end of last season. He also lowered his body fat from 12 percent to 9 percent.

Rodriguez said the difference came from being able to get back to training the way he did before he had surgery on his right hip in March 2009.

He said his surgeon, Dr. Marc Philippon, gave him the "green light" to resume training the way he did in offseasons before the surgery. "The last several years, I've probably been more 60, 70 percent rehab, 30 percent training," he said. "I think overall an uphill battle since that surgery."

He said he wasn't using the hip as an excuse for the decline in his numbers the last couple of years but added that he comes to this camp more "flexible" and "quicker on my feet" than in years past. "This is as healthy as I've felt over the last several years," he said.

Rodriguez had 30 homers and 125 RBIs last year - the 13th straight season in which he's had at least 30 and 100 - and is sixth all-time with 613 homers. But his average dropped for the third straight year; after batting .314 in 2007, he hit .302 in 2008, .286 in 2009 and .270 in 2010.

He said he expects a "nice year" out of himself, one more closely resembling the seasons he used to routinely put up. "We expect to do a lot of good things,'' he said, "and in order for us to do that, I know I have to play at an elite level, and I'm ready for that challenge."

A day earlier, Derek Jeter was asked questions about the possibility of a position change before the end of his three-year contract, which has a player option for a fourth year. A-Rod wasn't interested in speculating whether he still will be at third base and hitting cleanup when his contract ends in 2017.

"This is the best I've felt in three years," he said. "I think after this year's over, I can be more equipped to answer that question. I'd like to answer that more at the end of the year because I feel pretty good right now."

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