'I've cleared a lot out of my head'

Editor's Note: This story appears in the May 21 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Alex Rodriguez woke up on May Day with the satisfaction of having completed one of the greatest months in Yankees history. Fourteen homers, 34 RBIs, a walk-off grand slam, a walk-off three-run homer, two homers in three games at Fenway Park.

And the Yankees were in last place. Which in many ways captured the Bronx diary of the man Bud Selig prays is in the passing lane to the home run record that will soon belong to Barry Bonds.

"Hopefully, he'll keep going at-bat to at-bat, and not try to achieve world peace," Joe Torre says. "Alex bears no responsibility for our problems."

There may be those in New York who call him Mr. April, but even they would be hard-pressed to argue that what Rodriguez did had no meaning.

"Actually, Alex finally figured out the whole front-runner thing," says one teammate. "He realized that when he got hot, all those people in the media who were killing him for being useless in the clutch were climbing all over themselves to get his attention. It's about time."

Everybody's trying to get inside A-Rod's head. But it all starts with the mechanical adjustments he made, with the help of hitting instructor Kevin Long and bench coach Don Mattingly. Rodriguez worked hard to shorten his leg lift, which has quickened him on the inside pitch and made him far less vulnerable to the ball away.

"As a result," he says, "I feel more relaxed, more confident, more balanced -- and on everything."

That's how he looked during his three years in Texas, when, under the tutelage of Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, A-Rod hit 156 homers, knocked in 395 runs and won an MVP award.

"Part of it is mechanical," Rodriguez says. "Part of it is just playing baseball and worrying about nothing else."

A-Rod admits he has expended a lot of energy trying to please The Boss, the tabloids, talk shows, fans and teammates.

"I've cleared a lot out of my head," he says. "Really, I have to just think about what I can control, which is the game. That's all."

Some players suggest it helps Rodriguez's psyche to know that, at the end of the season, he can bow to his staunchest New York critics, flip them a Bronx salute and ride off into the sunset with another $200M deal.

"That isn't on my mind," he insists. "I want to stay with the Yankees. I want to win a world championship for Mr. Steinbrenner in Yankee pinstripes."

"What has Alex ever done to make people cheer against him? ... I root for him because he doesn't deserve some of what he's had to put up with."
-- David Ortiz

Whatever, Torre says. "Alex worried about things he couldn't control. He's hardened himself to all that goes on around him in New York, and we're going to see how great he can be. If Alex can block everything out, say to heck with everyone and just concentrate on pleasing himself and his teammates, there's no telling what he can do. There may not be anyone who's ever had more talent, and now we're seeing it."

Rodriguez will be zeroing in on 500 homers right around the time he turns 32, on July 27, which will likely be shortly after Bonds passes Henry Aaron.

Then public perception of A-Rod may well turn.

"What has Alex ever done to make people cheer against him?" asks Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "He is cooperative. He always plays hard. He's never been involved in any trouble. I root for him because he doesn't deserve some of what he's had to put up with."

Alex Rodriguez likes to be liked, and it could happen that he becomes the anti-Bonds, the guy who can become the Face of Baseball in the post-BALCO era. All he has to do is keep his eye on the ball.

Peter Gammons is a baseball reporter for ESPN. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.