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SportsColumnistsJim Baumbach

Teamwork more important to A-Rod than 600 club

New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez, left, and Tampa

New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez, left, and Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach look up as A-Rod hits his 598th career home run off Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine. (July 18, 2010) Photo Credit: KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

On the doorstep of gaining entrance to the exclusive 600 home-run club, Alex Rodriguez took the opportunity yesterday to talk about perspective.

The Yankees third baseman said he used to care a lot more about personal numbers. But then he won the World Series last year, held the trophy in the air for the first time and "you realize there is no comparison."

So he's a team-first guy now. Just ask him.

"It's all about winning," said Rodriguez, who remains at 598 after going 2-for-4 against the Angels. "You realize that if you do win a world championship and at some point along the way you were a team member who got some big hits and big home runs, some big RBIs, that's what the game is all about."

Feel free, of course, to roll your eyes and call this just another acting job by Rodriguez, because maybe you're right. Or maybe this is how he really feels now.

But, in the end, what matters most if you're a Yankees fan is that as Rodriguez approaches a huge personal accomplishment, he is sticking to the team-first script. Feel confident knowing that he's still trying hard not to be a distraction, and he's succeeding.

Just like last year, Rodriguez is rarely seen in the Yankees home clubhouse before or after games. When he does make himself available to reporters, he keeps his answers short and generally bland. There was a time earlier in his career when Rodriguez longed to be viewed as a media star who gave thoughtful quotes. Those days are long gone.

"A few weeks ago I had a fly ball almost hit me on the head," Rodriguez said, referring to a botched foul pop in Seattle. "Four years ago nobody would have been laughing. I probably would have come in here and told you guys the wind got in the way or the sun or something. That, to me, is where it's changed for me. I've become more of a team member and a little bit more relaxed."

Everything changed early last year, of course, when Rodriguez confirmed that he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his career and then underwent hip surgery. Exposed as a cheater and faced with lots of down time rehabbing his hip, Rodriguez has said he was forced to reorganize his mindset and decide what he wanted out of the remainder of his baseball career.

But it couldn't have been a hard choice. He had to pick winning - to embrace doing whatever he could to help the Yankees win - because his personal numbers were suddenly tainted. Maybe someday steroid users will find their way into the Hall of Fame, but right now it's clear they're not welcome. So why continue to chase personal numbers if no one knows how his final total will be viewed.

Along those lines it's not hard to notice the awkwardness surrounding his march toward No. 600. It's an impressive feat, something accomplished by only six players. But how much celebration does it deserve? "For me the whole thing as I approach 600 that I think about is the perspective of where I was when I hit 500," Rodriguez said, "and how far things are different now."

After Rodriguez hit three home runs in a game in 2005, his memorabilia company ran radio ads for signed baseballs commemorating the achievement for $399. He was heavily criticized, and he responded by disbanding the company.

That was just one of several embarrassing moments during Rodriguez's Yankees career, and it was easy to think he'd never learn it wasn't just about him.

But after everything he's been through, maybe he has.

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