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Bathed in the glow
of three television screens and one laptop computer, Scott Boras, briefly
without a phone to his ear or baseball owner beneath his thumb, reposed on a
black leather sofa in his two-room, field-level suite last Friday at Angel
Stadium. The �ber-agent, dressed in a black wool overcoat and gray mock
turtleneck, had the look of a contented day trader, a master of the hardball
universe tracking his properties--in this case, his clients--in real time. On
the main big-screen, flat-panel TV appeared his Berkshire Hathaway, New York
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid and most-deconstructed
player in baseball.
More than the " Doubleday ball" in Cooperstown, alleged to have been used in baseball's mythic first game in 1839, or Babe Ruth's 1932 World Series called shot, the sport's greatest source of debate might be what's going on inside A-Rod's head. Each operatic turn of his career invites, often with assistance from A-Rod's own words, armchair psychoanalysis. His current molten-hot streak is no different. Among the popular theories to explain it: He's more relaxed; he's mentally unburdened after admitting on his first day of spring training that his friendship with teammate Derek Jeter has waned; he's motivated by the possibility of becoming a free agent, should he exercise the opt-out clause in his contract after this season. This time, however, Rodriguez's change of fortune can be explained almost entirely by real physical changes, most notably a substantial reduction in his body fat and a rebuilt swing for which some of the credit goes to a guy who didn't make it out of the minors during his first 18 seasons as a player and coach.
"Before spring training," Boras says, "he told me, 'You know, Scott, I've got it. I feel like I have a very repeatable swing.' Everything else--the confidence, the way he carries himself--came because of the swing. The swing came first."
The remaking of A-Rod actually began late last summer when Boras and his team of fitness experts suggested to Rodriguez that he might improve his defense, which had suddenly become unreliable last season, if he lost some weight. In his three years since moving from shortstop to third base after his trade from Texas to New York, Rodriguez had grown increasingly thick through his chest and rear.
Rodriguez dropped 15 pounds over the winter and reduced his body fat from 18% to 10%. That he was sleeker and more nimble was immediately apparent on Opening Day, when he set up the winning run against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays by stealing second base on his own. "Last year? No way I even try," Rodriguez says of the theft. "Why? Because I would have been out by two feet."
Becoming more fit improved his hitting, too, as Rodriguez overhauled what last year had degenerated into a long, overly muscled swing. The work began with the purchase and installation of a state-of-the-art batting cage in his Miami home, complete with multiple cameras, video monitors, mirrors and a pitching machine. "It's the first one he's owned," Boras says.
Meanwhile, less than three weeks after their playoff ouster in the Division Series, the Yankees replaced bench coach Lee Mazzilli with hitting coach Don Mattingly, who in turn was succeeded by Kevin Long. It was Long's first major league job. A 31st-round pick by the Royals in 1989, the 40-year-old Long spent the previous three seasons as New York's Triple A hitting coach. Long says that Rodriguez was "one of the first people to congratulate me," and A-Rod quickly flew to Arizona to meet with Long. Over lunch at a Scottsdale restaurant in November, Rodriguez appealed to Long for help. "I want you to come to Miami," Rodriguez told him. "I want you to look at film with me, and let's come up with a game plan for the off-season."
Long studied videotape of Rodriguez's swing and in December flew to Miami to work with the third baseman. For five days Long rarely left Rodriguez's side. They would work out at the University of Miami early each morning, eat breakfast, then work on hitting for several hours at a time in Rodriguez's cage. Long would even accompany Rodriguez to his business meetings and charity work in the afternoons. "I was living the life of Alex Rodriguez," Long says.
Rodriguez's once-graceful swing had come to resemble the ugly hack of a carnival customer swinging a too-heavy sledgehammer at one of those ring-the-bell-and-win-a-prize booths. The more he pressed, the worse the results were. Long identified three major flaws:
? Rodriguez would sometimes drag his back foot forward rather than leave it in place as he began his swing, which decreased his leverage.