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THROUGH THE restaurant's open streetside window, 61st Street glistens in the cool rain, small puddles reflecting the white light of nearby buildings like sparkling footlamps. On Saturday night of a holiday weekend, only the occasional yellow streak of a speeding taxi obscures the slick blackness of the asphalt. Freshly cleansed, New York City lacks the heat, the traffic and the hurried indignation of its reputation. His wise friend, whom he calls the Bridge, told him New York could be like this. Working on a bowl of pasta with shrimp and chicken in red sauce, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez smiles as he remembers that conversation three months ago. � Earlier in the day, as he drove himself to Yankee Stadium in his white Suburban, Rodriguez sang out loud to the raps of Jay-Z. Then, in his first at bat against the Boston Red Sox, his principal antagonists, he whistled a vicious 408-foot line drive off the centerfield wall with a swing he estimates required "50- to 60-percent" effort. Both of those pleasures--singing aloud and plastering a baseball with such ease--were not possible last season, not in the New York he knew in his first year as a Yankee, after being traded from the Texas Rangers and making the switch from shortstop. "It was by far the toughest year of my career," says Rodriguez, in his 12th major league season. "Just a monster."
Then the Bridge told him how it could change. Rodriguez gave Tino Martinez that nickname because the Yankees first baseman has become his personal link to the other made Yankees (that is, the ones with world-championship rings) such as catcher Jorge Posada, centerfielder Bernie Williams, closer Mariano Rivera and especially shortstop, captain and clubhouse sachem Derek Jeter.
" New York is a tough place to break in," explained Martinez, who was a teammate of Rodriguez's with the Seattle Mariners in 1994 and '95 before winning four World Series with the Yankees. "[The fans and media] almost want to see you fail at first, to test you. But once you win them over, they will carry you along with their support. Then it's like you're riding a wave. I'm telling you, they carry you."
Asked if he has won that kind of support from New Yorkers, Rodriguez, who was born in Manhattan's Washington Heights but grew up in the Dominican Republic and Miami, replies, "I feel like I'm getting close. I like playing at the Stadium. I like hitting at the Stadium. I totally see what he's talking about. I feel like I'm home. Last year felt like one long road trip. Last year I felt like I had to prove myself on every single pitch. Things have changed, especially in the last week."
In fact, things have changed considerably over the last three weeks. From May 7 through Sunday, Rodriguez hit .410 with seven homers and 21 RBIs. Not coincidentally the Yankees, who began the season 11--19, won 16 of 20 games during that stretch to go from nine games out of first in the American League East to 31/2 games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. For the year, all Rodriguez had done was take the major league lead in home runs (17), RBIs (49) and runs (43); become the first player to hit eight homers in Yankee Stadium in April and the first to drive in 10 runs in a game there; and move within two homers of becoming the first player (chart, page 41) to hit 400 before his 30th birthday. (He turns 30 on July 27.) Off the field he had prevented an eight-year-old boy from getting hit by a truck in Boston during an April road trip, and last week, upon making a $200,000 donation with his wife, Cynthia, to a children's mental health center in Washington Heights, had proudly revealed that he is seeing two therapists.
"Since then," he says, "I've noticed a big change from people. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and thanked me. I guess it made me more real, more human in some people's eyes. But I didn't do it for me. I did it for the children. They should know that being in therapy isn't a negative thing."
Nice season, but still not enough to fully melt New York's heart. Last Thursday, for instance, Rodriguez blasted a prodigious two-run homer to beat the Detroit Tigers 4--3, which prompted manager Joe Torre to say, "Even Jeter's jaw drops when [ A-Rod] hits them like that, because he knows he doesn't have that kind of ability." The next morning's edition of The New York Times, however, was less flattering. " A-Rod's affairs do seem so melodramatic, so rehearsed, it is difficult to know where the rhetoric ends and the revelations begin," columnist Harvey Araton wrote. ".... [T]he story of how he stepped into the street to pull a child from stepping in front of a car circulated like news from Iraq. On the eve of another Red Sox series, here comes the admission on the television show 'Extra' that he is the self-help sultan of swing, seeing two therapists to help salve his emotional wounds." Accompanying the chilly column was a breakdown of Rodriguez's batting averages against winning teams (.269) and losing teams (.360), as well as his average in the late innings of close games (.167, in an 18-at-bat sample).
After his game-winning home run, Rodriguez was asked by a reporter if it was important for him to play well in the upcoming series against Boston to prove his mettle. In a rare display of anger Rodriguez snapped, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. For me, I couldn't care less."
Two days later Rodriguez was no less indignant when the subject came up. "One game in May against the Red Sox is supposed to define me?" he retorted. "That's such a load of crap I don't want to hear it. What if I hit a walk-off homer tomorrow and then do absolutely nothing in the [next] series against Kansas City? One at bat, one game doesn't make you a player. New York's about grinding it out every day."
Rodriguez began his Yankees career with a 1-for-17 showing in Boston and ended last year with a 2-for-17 slide in New York's four consecutive losses to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. He also was ruled out while running to first in Game 6 of the ALCS for slapping the baseball from the glove of Boston righthander Bronson Arroyo, a maneuver Red Sox ace Curt Schilling later called "bush league."