TAMPA, Fla. — A year ago, Alex Rodriguez was a man on an island when he showed up for spring training.
Actually, a sidewalk.
After battling with the Yankees for much of the previous two years, not to mention Major League Baseball, and coming off a season-long suspension for PED use, A-Rod showed up to a horde of media last year.
The Yankees, who typically use a pavilion at Steinbrenner Field for big news conferences in spring training, essentially left him to fend for himself a year ago. So his first media address of 2015 took place not in a comfortable, controlled setting but in blistering sunshine on a public sidewalk just outside the club’s minor-league facility.
Yesterday, after a season in which he hit 33 home runs and drove in 86 runs, he spoke in a climate-controlled room at Steinbrenner Field.
“Overall, I just feel so much better coming into this year,” he said. “It’s certainly liberating to come into this season not carrying all this luggage around with me. So I’m at ease, I’m in a good place.”
It was another indication of the hatchet buried in 2015 between Rodriguez and the Yankees. Much of that, of course, had to do with A-Rod wildly surpassing expectations. “I saw [predictions of] 12 to 14 home runs, 80 games,” he said. “That was a fair handicap. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Instead, Rodriguez had a .250 batting average, .356 on-base percentage and .486 slugging percentage and led the team in home runs. “In many ways, for me, a Cinderella season,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it happened, to be honest with you.”
The numbers would have been even better had Rod riguez, who will turn 41 on July 27, not slumped the last two months. He entered August with a .282/.386/.544 slash line, then went .191/.300/.377 the rest of the way.
He said part of the issue was overdoing it in the offseason preceding 2015. “I ran out of gas in August,” he said. “My energy kind of picked up again in September, I just stunk. So one of the things adjusted for 2016 is to kind of pace myself a little bit more and use spring training as a ramping up instead of coming here ready to go on Day One, which I was last year.”
The Yankees struggled against lefthanders last year, especially after Mark Teixeira was lost for the season in August. They believe they have a more balanced lineup, but they again will need A-Rod to produce. His role will be limited to DH, which he and the Yankees continue to make clear.
Does he expect another year like 2015? Rodriguez didn’t bite, though he did say “this is a results-oriented business.’’
“The team needs me to produce. I’m a righthanded bat in the middle of the lineup. You just want to be productive,’’ he said. “I never look at the season and think about numbers. I think about how I can help the team win and be available both on the field and in the clubhouse to make some positive contributions, especially with the youngsters.”
Rodriguez is 13 home runs shy of 700 and 27 from tying Babe Ruth at 714 for third all-time. He and the Yankees argued last year over the $6 million he was due, as part of a marketing agreement, when he tied Willie Mays at 660. The parties settled on a charitable donation in that amount. As part of that agreement, A-Rod will be due another $6 million if he ties Ruth, but there doesn’t figure to be similar drama if he does.
“I think it’s in a much better place,” Rodriguez said of his relationship with the Yankees’ front office. “I know that I can speak firsthand, I had communication with [Brian] Cashman this offseason. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get back to playing baseball. I have a lot more work to do [to make up for past mistakes]. Like I said earlier, I’m only on first base. I’ve got to keep going.”