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By SAM BORDEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pressures of New York - a new team and a new position in the media center of the world - had turned Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez into a man his wife barely recognized.

There were nights last season when Alex would come through the door and Cynthia Rodriguez would just look at him.

"It was just a huge transition," Cynthia says. "No one can really understand exactly what it was like. ... I just think we weren't prepared. I don't think Alex was prepared mentally, emotionally."

Was he sick? Hurt? Where was the confident man she had married, the best player in baseball?

He was hitting .253 at the end of April. He wasn't hitting in the clutch. He was a loner in the clubhouse.

"I'll be honest with you," Cynthia said last week, leaning forward in the crowded club restaurant at Kauffman Stadium as the Yankees played the Royals. "He would get home and I would say things like, 'Can you see? Is your vision okay?' And he'd just give me a look like, 'Yeah, my vision's fine.'"

In a frank and wide-ranging interview with the Daily News, Cynthia Rodriguez offered the first tangible explanation for how therapy and family have finally helped her husband feel at home in New York.

"Familiarity is the biggest difference. Knowing the way to the ballpark, knowing the clubhouse, knowing our neighborhood - feeling like you're actually home," Cynthia says. "Last year felt like one long road trip. And this year, when we go to New York, we actually feel like we're going home."

Maybe he talked about the pressure and the relentless scrutiny in his therapy sessions, which he recently revealed are part of his daily "maintenance." After all, every minute of his life - his search for the father who'd abandoned him as a kid, his strained relationship with Derek Jeter, what he was doing five minutes ago - was held up for public examination.

"He never once said to me, 'Oh, my gosh, what did we do?'" says Cynthia, who gave birth to the couple's first child, Natasha, in November. "I would ask him, 'Is this what you thought it would be? Are you happy here?' And he would say 100% that he knew he made the right decision."

Reminded of those scenes with his wife, Alex laughs. "It was different for her, because she's never seen me struggle in that fashion," he says. "She would ask me how things were, and I would tell her things are going to be okay. And they were, in the end."

He sat in the visitors' clubhouse in Kansas City last week, stocking feet up against his locker and a bat twisting in his hands, having just finished his best month as a Yankee. He hit .349 in May, with eight home runs and 22 RBI. He was named Player of the Month. He is already a contender for MVP and is on the verge of becoming just the 40th player ever to hit 400 home runs (he's got 398).

The thing is, all of that pales in comparison to this: For the first time since he arrived in New York, he feels at ease with himself.

"This year, I see him play and I go, 'Okay, he's back. This is him," Cynthia says. "Because last year I was like, 'Who is that guy?'"

* * *

"The way I think about it is like this: Last year was like being the new kid in school again for Alex."

Cynthia Rodriguez

It was the first day of class at Miami Dade College. A warm winter day in 1997. Dr. Ernesto Valdes walked into his classroom and scanned the rows of students. He immediately noticed the slim, chiseled kid trying to hide in the last row, last seat on his right. He knew Alex Rodriguez, 22-year-old shortstop for the Mariners, wanted to hide. Valdes grinned.

"He went row by row, and basically the question was: What's your name, what do you do, and what kind of car do you drive?" Alex says, laughing. "And I said to myself, 'Omigod, my plan was to stay incognito here. And I'm saying, [expletive], how do I avoid this?"

That wasn't an option. So he sat up straight, waited his turn and cleared his throat. "I'm Alex Rodriguez, I'm from a Dominican background, I was born in New York, I play for the Seattle Mariners and I drive a Range Rover."

"Everyone was like whoosh," he says, turning his head quickly. "I felt like a Christmas tree in that classroom, man."

But Valdes was more interested in what motivated this particular student.

"This is a writing class," the professor says. "It's focused on the essay. ... We did a lot of writing. And Alex never missed an assignment."

"I love writing," Alex says. "I'm a horse---- writer, but I love doing it. It's something I've always wanted to be better at."

He got a B-plus, he says, or maybe an A-minus. He can't remember. Valdes isn't telling. It doesn't matter, because the process was the victory for Alex then, doing something he wasn't expected to do and doing it well, sort of like moving to third base last year.

Cynthia remembers immediately bristling at that proposition. Alex was the best shortstop in baseball. He wouldn't move, right?

"I was surprised," she says. "He said, 'I feel really good with what I've done at shortstop. I'm ready for a new challenge.'"

He took another class that same winter, a government one. Getting his college degree is the long-term third base, something he'll confront once baseball is over. He has been working with the University of Miami to develop a correspondence curriculum that will allow him to take classes via mail during the season and attend when he's back in Florida.

"He respects people who have credentials," Cynthia says. "He says to me, 'How am I going to tell my children that it's important to go to college when I haven't gone?'"

* * *

"One thing I've noticed in New York: People in New York want you to hurt a little bit, because that's part of the process. You've got to show some pain here to be accepted."

Joe Torre

There were the comments from the Red Sox about being a "clown" or not a "true Yankee." There was the commotion over the "slap play" in the playoffs last fall.

And then came the therapy disclosure.

Image has always been an issue for Alex. Most of the time, he looks like he ought to be in a picture frame. He's articulate. A brilliant athlete.

And he makes a ton of money.

This rubs some people the wrong way. When Alex and Cynthia made a sizable donation to the Children's Aid Society program in Washington Heights last month and Alex spoke to the kids about how they shouldn't be ashamed to talk to therapists - because he does it, too - it became big news.

Some said it seemed too convenient; the Red Sox were coming to town soon, and this smelled like a PR move.

Alex scoffs at the notion. He says he cares only about what a select few people think of him: family, close friends, teammates.

Cynthia laughs at the idea the donation was contrived, especially because it was her idea.

"We wanted to open a facility in Washington Heights because that's where he's from," she says. "And since my field is psychology, I said, 'Alex, wouldn't it be great to have a Boys and Girls club where, instead of playing sports, they can seek counseling? They can have group therapy and family therapy and you can really change the dynamics of the community this way.' And he agreed."

Cynthia, who has a master's degree in psychology, simply thought her husband's admission would help the children.

"He could have been one of those kids sitting there," she says. "I watched their faces. They connected with him. It was the most proud moments I've ever had of him."

* * *

"Nobody has any idea what he goes through every day. The pressures and the expectations that come with being him - nobody, not even anyone in this clubhouse, has any idea what that is all about."

Tino Martinez

After most games last season, Alex would stay up when he got home and watch the rebroadcast of the game he had just played.

"There's no similarities to coming to New York under the spotlight I came under," he says. "I know for a lot of people it was a lose-lose situation: If you hit 50 home runs and you drive in 150 and you win the World Series, that's the only way people are going to accept you. And I knew that coming in."

This year he has throttled back his self-examinations slightly; he does not watch every night. "If I have a great game, I'll watch; if I sucked, I won't," he says with a shrug.

Instead, he'll try to wrangle some late-night time with Natasha. "Any parent will tell you that the sleeping thing is a big deal," Cynthia says. "And so she goes down at 7 and she's down for the night. When Alex comes home and he wants to wake her up it drives me nuts.

"It's hard, because I understand. I mean, he must miss her," Cynthia adds. "I would want to wake her up, too. But I tell him not to and then he goes, 'I'm just going to give her a kiss.' And then all of a sudden, she miraculously wakes up. And he says, 'I swear I didn't do anything!'"

Alex softens the grip on his bat as he talks about Natasha.

"You look in her eyes and it makes everything easier," he says. Moments later, the grip is tight again and he is out of his chair, on his way to the batting cage. Back to work. Smiling.

I am NOT affiliated with the New York Yankees. I am just a fan. I am not Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or any other member of the Yankee ballclub. This site is mainly for entertainment purposes only.