"I'm enjoying the game at a level I didn't enjoy before," he said. "I was so consumed about trying to do special things in this game. Now I am just consumed about one thing: winning. This is the best I've ever gotten along with my teammates."
And then there was this admission, which defined 2009 for him better than his regular-season stats (.286 batting average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs): "I'm focused on playing baseball. Less is more."
He has stayed mostly out of the front of the paper, the business section and, except for his romance with the actress Kate Hudson (who is described by one Yankee as "really down to earth; great for him"), the gossip pages. He has impressed Ray Negron, a Yankees adviser who helps arrange many community initiatives for the team, with his increased volunteerism, such as visits to schools and hospitals and writing a check to a Bronx youth baseball league when he heard it was in danger of folding.
"There's a difference in Alex this year, by far," Negron says. "He was always good about [community involvement], but this year he has taken it to another level. All year long it's been, 'What can we do?' One day he went out to play stickball in the streets in the Bronx with the kids, unannounced. Before you knew it there were kids running from every direction, every block. They loved it."
Rodriguez carried this lightness into the postseason, the crucible that in past years had revealed his low melting point. In his previous 59 postseason at bats, dating to Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, in which the Yankees magnificently blew a three-games-to-none lead to Boston, Rodriguez batted .136. In that time he came to the plate with 38 runners on base, and he left every one of them on, going 0 for 27.
It helps Rodriguez that the Yankees have six other hitters in their lineup who hit more than 20 home runs this season. Says Long, "The difference now is that he's swinging at strikes. I can't remember one time this postseason that he really chased something." (In the first two postseason series Rodriguez swung and missed only five times in 52 swings, a 91% contact rate, 13% higher than during the regular season.)
The Yankees did control two games against the Angels because of the pitching of ace CC Sabathia. But it was Rodriguez, like the queen on a chessboard, who constantly influenced strategy. With the Yankees three outs away from a 3--2 loss in Game 2, he homered on an 0-and-2 pitch from Angels closer Brian Fuentes in the 11th inning. The Yankees would win, 4--3 in 13 innings.
Rodriguez also homered in Game 3, when the Angels won 5--4 and in Game 4, a 10--1 New York blowout. In one stretch, beginning with his final two at bats of the regular season, Rodriguez homered on seven of 24 balls he put into play, turning October into glorified batting practice. So impressed was Angels manager Mike Scioscia that he twice ordered Rodriguez intentionally walked in the ninth inning with nobody on base. Until then, there had been only one intentional walk in postseason history with the bases empty in the ninth inning.
True to his new form, Rodriguez let his postseason stand with little comment. "I don't talk much anymore," he said when he turned up one day in the formal interview room. "I don't ever have to explain myself. That's a good thing."
There can be no doubt that the $423.5 million the Yankees spent in 11 days last December on Sabathia, first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitcher A.J. Burnett helped put the Yankees back in the World Series for the first time in six years. But the biggest boost has come from a player who was already there, one who is simply a good baseball story right now.