- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- He has been sitting in the Yankees' dugout for nearly 20 minutes now, just talking, and the topic that has unexpectedly made him the most animated yet is not how he was just moved out of the Yankees' cleanup spot he'd vowed to fight to hold on to in spring training, or even the re-living of the home run he hit that same night two Fridays ago, moving him into fifth place on baseball's all-time list, with Willie Mays on his radar next.
No, Alex Rodriguez, who turns 37 in July, is sitting bolt upright and talking animatedly now about how today's younger players don't talk baseball like players did when he broke into the big leagues. And now he sighs.
"I really miss that part of the game," Rodriguez is saying. And his voice grows more passionate and wistful as he explains.
Even three or four years ago, the A-Rod who is seated here now is not the A-Rod you would get.
The home runs and other gargantuan stats he's amassed in his previous 18 big league seasons were expected for him from the moment he broke in with the Seattle Mariners at the age of 18. But the pressure-saturated grind his life became even though he fulfilled nearly all the projections and became the best player in the game -- the depth of that was often apparent only to him.
And the fact he has arrived at the comparatively Zen approach to his professional life that he has now? That was never, ever a lock. That may be his biggest career surprise yet.
Who would've ever thought the same man who was once so anal or such a preening narcissist (or both) that he actually had clubhouse boys put the toothpaste on his toothbrush would ever evolve into a guy whose latest catch phrase is, "Less is more"?
The current A-Rod who's sitting here actually volunteers the old A-Rod had some self-correcting to do even by the time he came to New York nine seasons ago. "I was younger, maybe I felt entitled, maybe I felt like I just wanted to do great things," he admits.
And now? "Right now, I just know I feel different," he says. "I've adapted to my role on the team. It's a role I'm enjoying. It's a role of leadership When I was 23, 24, it was fine for me to go work out early in the morning in the wintertime, or come out here early for my pregame routine, and do it by myself. Now I feel like if I don't have three or four guys with me, it's a failure, you know? Because if I learn something new in this game every day after all this time, I'm sure they can, too.
"It's a role of saying less, doing more and carrying a big stick."
Rodriguez doesn't go on to say the "less is more" approach seems cribbed directly from Derek Jeter, the man who has played 45 feet to his left these past nine years. But without going into the whole litany of his own screwups -- "Look, I've made a lot of mistakes and they've all-l-l been well documented," Rodriguez says through gritted teeth and with a droll laugh -- Rodriguez is different.
Robinson Cano, who assumed his cleanup spot in the order against right-handers when A-Rod was bumped up to the third spot, is one of his acolytes though it's long been clear Cano was most likely to overtake Rodriguez as the best player on his own team, not just in the whole game. "He helps me all the time," Cano says.
In another year and another stage of his career, Rodriguez might not have adjusted well to any of that -- let alone being slid out of the cleanup spot he coveted in the Yankees' batting order on the same night he happened to hit his milestone 630th home run and Albert Pujols had just hit town, lugging that new A-Rod-sized, 10-year, $240 million contract the Angels gave him. When asked to compare them, Rodriguez's own manager had this to say:
"Alex has been that guy, too," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. And the "has been" sort of hung in the air.
But instead of brooding about any of it when reporters descended on him, Rodriguez defused the batting order move by joking "if you think that's a story" wait until he becomes the Yanks' new leadoff man at this late stage of his career.
He was similarly calm after going 3-for-4 in the game with a stop-the-presses stolen base, and then hearing about Girardi's "has been" remark.
"I'm actually just enjoying laying in the weeds and letting other players get the attention and focus," Rodriguez agreed.
This is new, all right. And Rodriguez says he can pinpoint when this Zen outlook started. It was 2009. He blames the sky-high expectations he felt as a young man for why he "experimented" in 2003 with Primobolan, the performance-enhancing drug that a spring 2009 Sports Illustrated article outed him for using. But he adds that the way 2009 ended -- with him slugging the Yankees to a World Series win, gaining him the first ring of his career -- changed everything for him.
Now, whether or not you scoff at his hope that Hall of Fame voters will believe his contention that everything he did before or since 2003 has been clean, there's still no denying Rodriguez projects a different vibe and personality now as he sits in this dugout talking.
"You just get so tired of banging your head against the same wall," he says, which has become one of his catchall quotes every bit as much as "less is more."
Is the change genuine? We'll see.
But look: There was another shift in him that was impossible to miss the night he smacked his 630th home run. When asked if he had any regrets about the indelible stain his admitted PED use placed upon his record-setting march, Rodriguez didn't fake remorse. He said, "No. The one thing I can never control is the past."
It was an authentic answer, if not the politically correct one.
For a man so often guilty of being plastic and fake before, it was the sort of shift that makes you think Rodriguez does deserve some conditional added credibility now -- at least until he screws up again. He's had months-long periods of calm like this before.
Rodriguez knows that, too. And he still thinks those days are over.
"What I've found is simpler is better for me," he says. "When I'm driving to the ballpark each day now, my only goal is 'What can I do to win this ball game today?' Or, 'How can I help the team win another championship?'"
Even among the Yankees themselves, there is a belief that Rodriguez will never again be the player he was. How much he has left is the better question.
He played only 99 games and hit just 16 home runs a year ago. Various surgeries or injuries to his knee, hip, thumb and wrist have sidelined him. Like his dipping power numbers, the breakdowns could all be telltale signs of the aftereffects of PED use.
To overtake Barry Bonds' total of 762 home runs, Rodriguez needs to average 22 a season from now until the last year of his contract, when he'll be 42.
While such numbers are certainly doable for him, becoming the all-time home run king doesn't look like the lock it used to be. And when he's told that overtaking Bonds doesn't appear to be the 24/7 obsession for him that, say, Bonds' whatever-it-takes chase of Hank Aaron was, Rodriguez shrugs again and says: "Look, who wouldn't want that record? I'd be lying if I said I didn't But I've just found the less-is-more way allows me to manage my talents better."
The sight of how Pujols arrived in New York two weekends ago -- still homerless and still denying it had anything to do with getting the same sort of mammoth deal A-Rod got once upon a time from the Texas Rangers -- seemed to tug some trip wire in Rodriguez, too. When asked about Pujols' early struggles, Rodriguez was careful to frame his answer only in terms of himself, and he essentially said been there, done that, and don't want to go back to that again.
Is this any way to chase down Bonds and Aaron, Ruth and Mays?
Rodriguez thinks so.
"I feel the time that's passed behind me, but I also feel that, more than ever in my career, I just have some wind at my back, and some good energy around me now," Rodriguez explains. "I feel it just walking the street of New York. I feel it from my teammates, from opposing players, opposing managers, my relationship with our coaching staff. I mean, just everything overall -- I just found a comfort spot."
Rodriguez still hews to his argument that the pre- and post-2003 numbers will speak for themselves. He still sees himself doing great things.
But now this 20-some minute talk we're having over the crack-crack-crack of batting practice is winding down and he has taken off on his long tangent about why he misses talking baseball like he used to after he hit the big leagues in 1994.
What provoked the nostalgia today was that former teammate Al Leiter, now a part-time Yankees broadcaster, had approached him with a question about a 2-1 pitch in the sixth inning the day before against Minnesota. And back and forth they went, debating all the possibilities for 15 spirited minutes.
"You can go six years without a question like that now," Rodriguez says. "I really miss that," he repeats. "When I came up, it was always like that -- 6, 7, 8, 10 guys just having a drink after the game, icing their knees, just talking shop for two hours. And now it's just like there's no baseball talk now. Which is not bad. It's just the way the game is now.
"The culture has changed. Before we didn't have videos like we have now, so you'd say, 'Jason [Giambi], what did his ball do?' Or he'd say, 'Alex, did his breaking ball break 12 to 6? Six to 12? What?' And that's the way we'd educate each other I mean, that stuff is priceless. But very little of that goes on now. Because guys don't have to. They go back 20 feet" -- here A-Rod waves a hand toward the dugout tunnel -- "and they have film, which they're going to believe a lot more than their teammate."
He is done explaining now. He says, "You know?" one more time, looking for affirmation.
And when you tell Rodriguez that of all the labels he's had in his career -- kid phenom, superstar slugger, playoff flop-to-playoff hero, occasional arm candy for singers and starlets from Madonna to Cameron Diaz -- people are going to be surprised to read that in his dotage, he has become a crotchety old baseball wonk, Rodriguez rocks back and forth and laughs.
Then he says: "Oh! I've always been a baseball nerd, that's for sure. The guys, they make fun of me all the time because I'm always doing some goofy Plyometrics stuff or I'm watching film or I've always been a gym rat. They tell me all the time, 'Al? Just go home.'"
Rodriguez shrugs one last time now, then says something else that might surprise you, coming from a man who has shed so many skins and done so many things.
Looking out over the field, and then back at you again, he says: "This is home to me. You know?"
That Alex Rodriguez has arrived at the comparatively Zen approach to his professional life that he has now? That was never, ever a lock. It may be his biggest career surprise yet.