A-Rod letting his play speak for him

NEW YORK -- The psychology of the playoffs is everywhere, distilled down to perceptions of advantages and who has them, from the Los Angeles Angels playing with drive and purpose for a fallen teammate, to the bitter weather conditions, to the 103-win Yankees fortified by -- as Angels center fielder Torii Hunter joked Thursday -- "a $10 billion payroll."

But the one person for whom psychology plays the biggest role -- the one player whose every movement, every statistic, every success and every failure is layered with constant analysis -- was nowhere to be found, even as the Yankees attempt to reach the World Series for the first time since 2003.

During the two-day run-up to Friday's opener of the American League Championship Series, baseball's richest player, Alex Rodriguez, receded into the shadows, comforted by a trio of safe havens: the batting cage, the field where only players are allowed beyond the foul lines, and the Yankees' cavernous clubhouse, where it is easy to disappear. There were no interviews, no holding court after his devastating performance in the American League Division Series against Minnesota, and conversely no talk about his famous postseason struggles that preceded it.

If it is possible, Rodriguez has attempted to achieve something both on and off the field that to date has curiously eluded him: the ability to let his greatness as a player finally speak for itself.

The season threatened to engulf him entirely. It began with the threat of a tell-all book poised to crumble his public image, his subsequent admission of using the anabolic steroid Primobolan, a serious hip injury -- its full effect still unknown -- that robbed him of a month of the season, and an embarrassing magazine photo spread that undermined both his tremendous abilities as a player and valuable credibility with his teammates.

"I think he's more comfortable now," Johnny Damon said. "You know what he can do when he feels good at the plate. We're a different team when he's in there."

Rodriguez produced what might be his most rewarding season. The numbers were there, naturally: a .286 average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs -- the 12th consecutive year Rodriguez has driven in 100 runs or more. After he returned to the Yankees' lineup on May 8, homering in his first at-bat in Baltimore, he played with more purpose and less frill. There were no public embarrassments, no moments when he controlled the news cycle with his outsized celebrity power. If such a balance was indeed possible to attain, while he was still the megastar, he was merely a baseball player.

"That's the thing about being here," said CC Sabathia. "There are so many great players that you don't have to be the guy. You can't be the guy all the time, anyway, because there's going to be times when other guys pick you up, times when you pick them up. I think for me, having great players like A.J. [Burnett] and Mark [Teixeira] come here at the same time made it a little easier for me."

Even Rodriguez's high-profile romance with actress Kate Hudson is decidedly more demure than his tabloid bombast -- links to mysterious strippers and Madonna, culminating in his divorce to former wife Cynthia -- over the previous 12 months.

And in turn, the Yankees machine soared. With Rodriguez back in the lineup, New York overtook a Boston club that had the better of them in the standings the previous two seasons, and beat the Yankees the first eight times they played this season.

For the third time in his career, Rodriguez is on the cusp of advancing to his first World Series, in a year that seems to be redefining him each day.

With Rodriguez, there had always been something else, something unflattering and distracting to overshadow him, and this season he seemed to free himself, even temporarily, from his own narrative. Perhaps it is the money -- it is always the money -- that creates the Rodriguez distance. During his career he has signed the two richest contracts in baseball history, and by the time his current contracts ends, he will near $600 million in salary alone.

There is, naturally, the New York tension of being the big-money star but not being homegrown that leaves Rodriguez, like many New York free agents, respected but not especially loved.

And of course, there is Rodriguez himself, who last season told bewildered teammates that he believed his relationship with Madonna would transform him into an international superstar. There was the Rodriguez who always seemed to find the way to say the wrong thing, like following the 2004 season when he discussed his work ethic with understandable pride, then stepped into a snare trap of his own making by adding that while he perfected his game, other players did not work as hard. Rival players interpreted Rodriguez's comments as him working while they "stayed home playing with their kids."

The psychology of Rodriguez is never far from the discussion. The truth, of course, is as multilayered as Rodriguez's skills. He is considered, generally, to be a postseason disappointment, the player for whom the moment -- as it increases in importance, as the calendar deepens into the year -- overwhelms him.

"I don't think any of that stuff matters," said Derek Jeter, whose postseason credentials never diminish. "We've always had confidence in Alex. In a short series, four or five games, you know what he can do. We just saw it. But as for the rest of it, I can't speak for him. That's something only he can answer."

Something always gets in the way. Playing for Seattle, he was brilliant in the 2000 ALCS against the Yankees -- he hit .409 in the series -- until a brushback pitch by Roger Clemens sparked criticism that Rodriguez had been intimidated by Clemens and the Yankees, even though Rodriguez's batting average increased as the series went on.

In 2004, his first year with the Yankees, he mashed the Twins in the Division Series, hitting .421 with numerous big-game hits, all forgotten because the Red Sox famously came back from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS, beat the Yankees and won the World Series. It is forgotten that Rodriguez had completely crushed the Red Sox for the first three games.

And then came the fall. The Yankees lost in the first round the next three years and did not make the playoffs in 2008. Rodriguez posted one of the great seasons in baseball history in 2007 -- winning the MVP after leading the league in runs, home runs, slugging and RBIs -- but killed big rallies time and again against the Indians in a four-game ALDS defeat. Rodriguez had gone through a horrific streak without producing with runners in scoring position, and despite being a career .291 hitter, with a .381 on-base percentage in the postseason, he continually fights the perception that he isn't primed for the moment.

Rodriguez is here again. This year, he destroyed the Twins again, hitting .455 with two home runs and 11 total bases in just three games. Those were the numbers, but there were also the deeds -- the game-tying two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Joe Nathan in Game 2, the game-tying home run in the clinching Game 3 off Carl Pavano in Minneapolis.

Rodriguez isn't talking, except on the field. There is the thought that he is curiously unburdened, now that he is free of the lie of having never used steroids. At long last, he does not have to be the game's savior, only its best player -- a task with which he does not seem to have much difficulty.

"People think about all the bad stuff, and then you look at what he does, and everyone now loves the guy," said outfielder Nick Swisher. "I mean, pick a side, people. He can hit any pitch, any place. This guy is ridiculous. Ridiculous. He puts up ridiculous numbers, PlayStation numbers, and he's playing on a hip and a half."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.