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"[Umpire] Jim Joyce said the next time I should just run [the pitcher] over, which is allowed," Rodriguez says now. "I don't regret it. I did what I had to do at the time. I would never do anything bush league. I have too much respect for the game for that."
Those episodes against Boston have contributed to the notion, popular in New York, that Rodriguez has yet to earn his pinstripes, especially in the shadow of the venerated Jeter. In fact, Rodriguez has batted .281 and has an .865 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against Boston since becoming a Yankee, including the playoffs and last weekend when he reached base eight times in 11 plate appearances as New York lost two out of three games. In that same period Jeter has hit .215 with a .621 OPS against Boston.
Even Yankees legend Reggie Jackson, who has become a friend and counselor to Rodriguez, says, "I think there's always going to be some doubt until he does something [special] to be accepted at the pinstriped gates and into the pinstriped corral. He has control of that with the bat and ball in his hand. There's too much ability there for it not to happen."
Last year Rodriguez batted .286 with 36 homers and 106 RBIs, one of the best statistical seasons by a Yankees third baseman but A-Rod's worst since 1997. After having been traded to New York a week before spring training began, Rodriguez learned a new position, lived for two months in a hotel with his then pregnant wife (who gave birth to a daughter, Natasha, in November), contended with frequent questions and gossip about his sometimes cool relationship with Jeter, worried what the newspapers were writing about him and tried to accommodate unending media requests for his time. Amid these distractions Rodriguez developed a mechanical flaw in his swing in which he wrapped his wrists as they moved back to a cocked position.
"He was like that in spring training," New York hitting coach Don Mattingly says, "and because he was new to us, I thought, Well, maybe this is how he does it. But as [he struggled]--two, three months--I decided, O.K., maybe this isn't right."
Says Rodriguez, "I was so out of whack, there were times when Donnie would flip me balls and I couldn't hit them." Rodriguez stopped wrapping his wrists and finished up strong. After the season he went home to Miami and decided to overhaul his approach to playing in New York. As Torre put it, "He needed to unclutter his mind."
A voracious reader of the sports section, Rodriguez says he has stopped perusing the New York newspapers, though he admits to occasionally listening to talk radio. He also decided to limit his typically generous accessibility to the media. "Last year I was trying to please everyone, to be all things to all people," Rodriguez says. "I needed to concentrate more on just doing my job and helping the Yankees win. That's it. There's no place like New York. And I found out that until you go through it for a season, you really don't know it. Now I know the landscape."
"From Day One of spring training," says Mattingly, "it's been night and day from last year. Right from that first day he had his swing. You could tell right away that he was relaxed."
Without the flaw in his wrists or the anxiety with runners on (after hitting .248 in those spots last year, he was hitting .303 through Sunday), Rodriguez has rediscovered his smooth stroke and opposite-field power. He also was second in the AL in walks, with 31, and on pace for 100. "I do my best hitting when I'm walking," he says. "That means I'm relaxed and my pitch recognition is a lot better. That's what happens when you take stress out of the equation. I don't feel like every pitch is the last pitch like I did last year."
Rodriguez has made one other adjustment: He drives himself to and from Yankee Stadium rather than using a chauffeur, which he did last season. "It doesn't seem that important, but it's a big adjustment," he says. "It's my personal time to prepare for the game or wind down from it. I can talk on the phone, play music, sing, whatever, and it's just me. If someone's in the car with you, you're not going to be singing. Just having that time alone has helped me relax."