- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
MINNEAPOLIS -- Some 5.27 million people live in Minnesota, and there is a good chance not a single one of them ever imagined Alex Rodriguez as a postseason choker.
A-Rod hit .421 against the Twins in the 2004 AL Division Series, before he started spending his Octobers slapping at pitcher's gloves and swatting at lakeside midges.
A-Rod hit .455 with two homers and six RBIs against the Twins in the 2009 ALDS, after his steroid confession left his legacy in so many microscopic pieces that his boss, Brian Cashman, likened the Yankees slugger to Humpty Dumpty.
Minnesota never saw the worst of Rodriguez. Never saw the hopelessly lost soul who inspired Joe Torre to bat him eighth in an elimination game in Detroit.
And now this: Rodriguez arrives in the hinterland an honest-to-god World Series champion, a made pinstriped man. A-Rod isn't merely a slugger. He's a liberated slugger, only the most dangerous kind.
"The World Series championship," Cashman said, "has exorcised a lot of his demons."
A-Rod used to be the Linda Blair of baseball stars, possessed by a legion of postseason doubts. But then he got busted as a juicer, and suffered what Cashman called "a catastrophic injury" to his hip. Rodriguez found religion on a surgeon's table in Colorado in March 2009, and decided, in his words, "to cut the fat out" of his life.
Just to make sure Rodriguez was committed to a team-centric change before his '09 season debut, just to make sure he was done kissing his reflection in the mirror in a photo shoot, longtime friend Gui Socarras and Yankees PR man Jason Zillo ran an intervention in a Tampa, Fla., diner, shouting at A-Rod for 90 intense minutes.
It worked. Rodriguez at last cut a low-maintenance path to October, gave the Yanks six homers and 18 RBIs in three series, and got tackled from behind by Derek Jeter in the winning World Series clubhouse. The captain put a choke hold on A-Rod and poured a bottle of champagne over his former BFF's head while pulling him to the floor, the two of them giggling like schoolboys on the way down.
No, the steroid admission and the hip surgery and the Tampa intervention and the drama-free approach weren't the only ingredients in the making of this champ. Jeter had a role in it, too. The shortstop saw Rodriguez making a legitimate attempt to be a better teammate, and after years of holding A-Rod's many sins against him -- especially those committed deep in that bygone Esquire piece -- Jeter finally extended a hand and pulled his third baseman in from the cold.
"There's no doubt their relationship is in harmony now," Cashman said. "They're there for each other on the field, and it's pretty evident. ... I can't play amateur psychologist, but it certainly doesn't hurt Alex to know that everybody's there for him, and that he's there for everyone at the same time."
Tuesday night, after he was done launching batting practice pitches all over Target Field, Rodriguez was asked to explain the essence of Jeter's postseason grace. A-Rod called the captain "incredible" and "the ultimate professional" and relayed a cute story from the Game 3 rain delay in last year's World Series, when an unnamed teammate started off to get some extra swings in the cage.
"If you haven't figured it out by now," Jeter told the teammate, "you probably aren't going to. Go out and have fun and enjoy the game."
Rodriguez can enjoy the game now. He's no longer the desperado who slapped at Bronson Arroyo's glove in 2004. He's no longer the goat who admittedly "played like a dog" in 2005. He's no longer the poor sap who batted eighth in 2006 because Torre couldn't get away with batting him 10th.
A-Rod is a clutch player; it says so right there in his bio. He spoke of a conversation he had with John Elway in Miami four or five years back, Elway assuring A-Rod his two Super Bowl titles -- coming in the final two years of his career -- were well worth the wait.
"It definitely gave me a lot of hope and faith that it's possible to do," Rodriguez said.
Elway said the first title made the second title come a little easier. Rodriguez is expected to discover the same thing.
"The burden is off his back," Cashman said.
Tuesday night, Rodriguez said he'd never seen so much parity and so many serious contenders on the eve of a postseason. He took that thought to a wild extreme when he declared, "For us to be David in this situation I think is great."
Minnesota is no Goliath here. The Yankees hit more homers than the Twins, steal more bases than the Twins, score more runs than the Twins, and make a lot more money than the Twins. Oh yeah, and they play in a tougher division, too.
Minnesota faced the Yankees three times over the past seven postseasons, and failed to extend any of those division series to a Game 5. The Yanks might have a pitching problem, but the Twins have a confidence problem.
Rodriguez inspires that crisis of faith like nobody else. Once cast as a postseason bum in other ports, including his own, the third baseman was and is viewed as a Jeter-like winner in these parts.
So when 5.27 million Minnesotans consider reasons why their team might surrender another playoff series to the New Yorkers, they'll likely start and stop at this cold, hard fact:
The Yanks have A-Rod and the Twins don't.