Time is still on A-Rod's side

NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez looks at the calendar, his eyes zeroing in on the dreaded day. It's July 27, the big one, the big Three-Oh, which to a former teenage star, once seemed as far away as the moon.

As the Mariners' No. 1 draft pick in 1993, A-Rod didn't just destroy fastballs. He did so when he was impossibly young -- just 17, and already good enough to be called one of three greatest amateur players of all time.

So said Woody Woodward, then the Mariners' general manager who plucked A-Rod from Miami's Westminster Christian High School and wasted no time lumping him with Darryl Strawberry (1980 first-round pick) and Ken Griffey Jr. (1987).

It took Rodriguez just two seasons to make it to the big leagues, and for the next decade, he was the game's youngest deity. But no more, not to A-Rod, who with a rueful laugh said, "Being 30 feels old, it sounds old. It's hard to believe."

The Yankee third baseman is kidding, mostly. What he's surrendered in years has been replaced by experience and maturity, two dividends the Yankees have needed in a bizarre, if not desperate summer.

Rodriguez is at the epicenter of the Yankees' offense-first philosophy, which essentially has turned them into the Red Sox of past years. With their starting rotation ruined almost beyond recognition -- things are so bleak Hideo Nomo is about to sign to a minor-league deal -- the Bombers need to score six or more runs most nights, a responsibility Rodriguez said, "we, as hitters, all welcome. With this lineup, six runs a game is very possible."

Rodriguez is making it a reality: He's tied for the American League lead in home runs with Manny Ramirez, fourth in the AL in batting average and RBI. Rodriguez is "finally getting comfortable," says Yankees manager Joe Torre, and will be the team's cleanup hitter now and forever.

"I'm enjoying these times more than when I was younger," A-Rod said. "The game is a lot more stressful when you're young. You're working hard to establish yourself as a good player, a good shortstop or third baseman, whatever. You're always climbing, climbing. Now you have the respect."

That respect manifests itself not just with flowery praise from opponents, but more subtly, especially in the way Rodriguez is pitched. As a young Mariner, hitting in front of Griffey and Edgar Martinez, he saw a steady blur of middle-of-the-plate fastballs.

"Till they were blue in the face," is how A-Rod described opposing hurlers' willingness to go one-on-one with him.

These days, however, the AL treats Rodriguez with a caution that borders on fear. He's batting .325 since the All-Star break and is averaging a home run every 10 at-bats in July.

Rodriguez has made life easier for Gary Sheffield in the No. 3 spot. The right fielder is hitting home runs almost as rapidly as A-Rod, going deep once every 11 at-bats in July. Sheffield's explanation for his HR-surge is captured in a single gesture -- a nod toward A-Rod's locker -- adding, "Alex is our crown jewel."

While Rodriguez is in a personal and Yankee-golden era, there's no guarantee the big-biceps offense will mean much in October -- assuming the Yankees get there. In some ways, this is the most dangerous team to play for Torre. But, almost bankrupt in pitching, this is arguably the worst Yankee team since 1996, too.

The injury report on an already battered staff was bleak Tuesday, even as Randy Johnson was smothering the Twins 4-0 in a two-hit, 11-strikeout performance over eight innings.

Before the game, Kevin Brown all but conceded he's going back to the disabled list -- this time perhaps for good -- and the Yankees announced Carl Pavano's mystery shoulder injury will keep him out of the rotation for yet another week.

So with a rotation of Al Leiter Wednesday, Aaron Small Thursday and sooner or later Nomo, the major leagues' worst starting pitcher, just how much of a difference can Rodriguez's power numbers really make?

Despite the obvious wounds around him, Rodriguez clings to the belief that the Yankees can hurt the Red Sox in October.

"We're more geared for a short series than a year ago," he said. "Last year, we weren't equipped to beat Pedro [Martinez] and [Curt] Schilling. We didn't have that type of team. This year, with [Mike] Mussina and Johnson, we're more dangerous in a playoff setting."

Rodriguez doesn't bother stating the obvious goals about the playoffs. Time is still on his side -- no matter what he says about turning 30 -- but after 11 years in the game, he still doesn't have a world championship on his résumé.

The wait has become taxing in its own, insidious way. Rodriguez admits he tires more easily now than in his early 20s, especially in day games after night games, and has to concentrate more on stretching than weight lifting, especially as the summer wears on.

These are natural surcharges of aging, or as he put it, "it's just a matter of being wiser." But whether A-Rod wants to keep surrendering to time until he's, say, 40, is unclear.

Although the third baseman has previously hinted at retirement at age 35, after his current contract expires in 2010, he now says, "There's really no point talking about that now. It's something I'll evaluate with my wife."

For now, Rodriguez's horizons are limited to August and September -- maybe October, too. That is, assuming he makes his peace with the 30-something universe.

"I guess my life is over," Rodriguez says, laughing, and this time definitely kidding.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.