TODAY'S PAPER
40° Good Morning
40° Good Morning
SportsColumnists

Door open for A-Rod to increase stature

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice during spring training at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. (Feb. 20, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla.

To say Alex Rodriguez is revered universally throughout the Yankees' clubhouse would be as silly as to attribute their 2010 ALCS loss to a lack of "hunger."

Yet while we should laugh off everything Hank Steinbrenner says - to reiterate, his actual involvement with the Yankees pales in comparison to that of his brother Hal - there are people at George M. Steinbrenner Field who swear by A-Rod.

"He likes to help other guys like me," Robinson Cano said. "He talks about what it means to play the game the right way. For me, he's like a big brother."

We find ourselves in a time of transition and uncertainty in the Yankee Universe. Andy Pettitte has retired, Cliff Lee never made it and CC Sabathia could opt his way out of town in November. The wounds from Derek Jeter's tense negotiations still haven't fully healed on either side, with even the mostly absent Hank Steinbrenner taking a shot at "players too busy building mansions" - which could apply only to Jeter.

Forces have conspired, in other words, to present a window of opportunity to A-Rod. As he commences his eighth season as a Yankee, he can elevate his already high status with continued good behavior and an uptick in performance.

"There's no question I feel I can improve on what I've done the last several years. Those years aren't acceptable," Rodriguez said Monday after the Yankees' workout. "This year, I'm in a good place to play at a really high level, and my team needs me to play at a high level to reach our ultimate goal, which is win a World Series."

At 35, A-Rod is trying to rebound from a 2010 that represented his worst statistical season as a full-time major-leaguer. His reported to camp having dropped 10 pounds (from 233 to 223) and 3 percent body fat (from 12 to 9) since the end of last season.

(Go ahead, say it: "I guess that popcorn was butter-free." A-Rod got a laugh with his opening remark: "Did anyone watch the Super Bowl?")

The idea was to give him more flexibility, make him more limber, on both sides of the ball. On defense, especially, his March 2009 hip surgery has rendered him rather statue-like. "If you're lighter on your feet, you would think you can have more range," Joe Girardi said. "You might be able to run the bases better. Because you're physically, maybe, going to feel better."

A superior season, combined with the increased maturation he has displayed since his 2009 confession to using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, could give A-Rod even more currency in the clubhouse and with the fans. Both constituencies feature voids to be filled.

The fans largely have embraced A-Rod after his monster '09 postseason, but he could climb into the rarefied air occupied by Jeter and Mariano Rivera if he keeps excelling and climbing the career homer list.

Among his teammates, meanwhile, A-Rod has grown into more of a frontline role as he has mellowed out. "I feel like I'm in more of a leadership position. A mentorship position," he said. " . . . Overall, it's just a different place."

Monday, Girardi noted, A-Rod spoke with rookie infielder Brandon Laird about his thinking during bunt situations.

Said Cano, "I give him a lot of credit" for his career surge.

The Steinbrenner brothers overruled Brian Cashman to give A-Rod his 10-year, $275-million deal in November 2007. Back then, you would've banked on Hank and A-Rod creating turbulence for years to come.

A-Rod, however, has become a calming influence, even while still enjoying his celebrity lifestyle. Hank? The Yankees wish they could find a window of opportunity to muzzle him.

New York Sports