MINNEAPOLIS -- It used to be that October really was a month of horrors for Alex Rodriguez. It didn't matter that he'd had his share of playoff moments with the Mariners, because in New York, when you play with the Yankees, all that matters is what you do in the season that matters most. And in the beginning of his time in pinstripes, A-Rod fell apart right along with everyone else.
That's where the reputation really began. Boston, 2004. You know what happened. The Yankees collapsed, blew a 3-0 lead, made history for all the wrong reasons. And A-Rod was in the center of it all, in the center of a stunning downfall that led to seasons of disappointment.
There was the "slap play" against the Red Sox. There was the .143 average from Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS to the start of the 2009 postseason. There were the 35 straight runners in scoring position that he stranded during that same time frame.
Then last year happened, a year where A-Rod hit "rock bottom," as he described it, with his steroids admission and hip surgery. A year where he bounced back. A year where October wasn't a horror show at all.
He hit. A lot. And the Yankees won their first World Series since 2000, beating the Twins and Angels and Phillies with A-Rod in the middle of it all again. The game-tying homer in Game 2 of the first round. Another in Game 3. He hit three homers in the ALCS, two more in the World Series. He couldn't stop smiling afterward, couldn't stop looking at the Commissioner's Trophy as it made its way around a Champagne-soaked Yankees clubhouse.
Finally, he was no longer a choker. He was a champion.
"It's taken me awhile to get to this point," Rodriguez said Tuesday, as the Yankees prepared to open this year's postseason with another division series against the Twins. Then he said, "But it feels good to be here."
Most of the attention this year has been paid to the Yankees' pitching going into these playoffs, so many of the questions focusing on the instability in the rotation. Those questions are deserved, too, with CC Sabathia being the only starter who feels legitimately reliable. After Sabathia comes Andy Pettitte, who has been rocky after returning from an injury, and after Pettitte comes Phil Hughes, who will be making his first postseason start.
So the pitchers have the spotlight and that's fine. But the Yankees will need to hit, need to get after the Twins starters, starting with Francisco Liriano in Game 1. And if the Yankees are going to do that, going to bang the ball around Target Field the way they used to smash balls off the big blue baggie at the Metrodome, it is going to have to be with A-Rod in the center of it all once more.
Rodriguez relishes this situation now. There is no pain, no trepidation about the big moments like there used to be. A-Rod wants the spotlight now. He wants to feel the same way he did a year ago.
"It is funny, people talk about defending -- I don't really like that term," Rodriguez said. "When you defend, that is not how we got our championship last year. I thought we earned it by attacking and being assertive, not by trying to defend something. I think the way we attain No. 28 is doing things the way we did last year."
It is a noble goal. Rodriguez admitted that his new approach to everything -- the game, his business interests, his life in general -- still doesn't come naturally for him, still takes work. He talks all the time about "simplifying" things, and it is what he strives for: fewer distractions, less off-field drama, fewer opportunities for people to pile even more pressure on to that which comes naturally for a player making the money that Rodriguez does.
"It's come a lot easier for some than it has for me," he said, and that's true -- Rodriguez still struggles with his communication at times, like Tuesday when he took a question about how the Yankees weren't favorites to win the World Series and proclaimed them the "David" (as opposed to "Goliath") this time around.
Right. Clearly he is still working at it. Still trying to find the right way, still trying to hold on to the magic that turned last season into a breakout, last fall into the memory of a lifetime.
The Yankees are back. Back in October and back where they plan to be every year. So is Rodriguez. He is back in the month that has quickly become his favorite time of year.