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Will '08 be year A-Rod wins it all?

A-Rod still searching for elusive prize

NEW YORK -- The exchange between a couple of three-time MVPs at this year's New York Baseball Writers' Association of America Dinner promised to be memorable. Alex Rodriguez and Yogi Berra didn't disappoint.

Accepting his honors as 2007's top performer, Rodriguez glanced at the beloved Yankee icon and said, "Yogi, I am pretty proud and impressed with your three MVP awards. The 10 championships, I'm very jealous of."

Four seasons have passed since Rodriguez's arrival was trumpeted as confirmation of the Yankees' return to playoff glory, his swap from Texas to New York supposedly hand-delivering the 2004 World Series title to the Bronx.

It didn't work out that way. Fenway Park souvenir shops still do brisk business selling the photograph of Rodriguez in the middle of one of his most prominent postseason meltdowns, flailing to slap the baseball from Bronson Arroyo's glove with the Yankees on their way to a stunning and deflating American League Championship Series collapse.

What has happened, and when will it change? Though Rodriguez has compiled remarkable regular-season statistics over his time in a Yankees uniform, media snipers delighted in pointing out last fall that he has now officially upstaged one more World Series game than he has played in.

Let there be little surprise, then, that Rodriguez insists he has "unfinished business" in New York. Rodriguez may be Cooperstown-bound and rich beyond his wildest dreams, agreeing to a new 10-year contract in December that could be worth $300 million, but Rodriguez has repeatedly said that he would gladly swap all of his personal accolades for one World Series title.

"There's definitely a huge hole in the resume," he admits.

The Yankees are betting big bucks that gap will be filled, sooner or later.

"You always have a chance," Derek Jeter said last week, "and Alex is part of that."

2007 was supposed to be the year that it all changed for A-Rod, when, after three years of banging his head against the wall, Rodriguez said he finally figured out New York. He blocked the swirling criticisms that follow his every movement, ignored whatever tumult surrounded the club, and simply performed like the best pure hitter in the game.

Leading the Major Leagues in runs, home runs and RBIs, Rodriguez's confidence was sky-high as the Yankees completed their 162-game slate on a meaningless weekend in Baltimore. He'd already conquered whatever demons haunted the regular season in '06: If one thing was certain, it was that he wouldn't find himself batting eighth in the Division Series again.

The calendar turned to October, and all that frustration came rushing back. Opening the playoffs in Cleveland, Rodriguez went 0-for-2 with two walks in the Yankees' loss in Game 1; he took an 0-for-4 collar in Game 2, striking out three times, as New York fell into an 0-2 series hole.

Rodriguez had two hits in Game 3, but by the time he finally picked up his first RBI of the series, it was too late. A-Rod's solo homer in the seventh inning of Game 4 off lefty Rafael Perez was a mere footnote as the Yankees lost, 6-3, sending them into a silent, bitter clubhouse for the last time in '07.

Hardly the Joe Carter moment Rodriguez once said he'd need to silence his critics.

Now with 94 playoff at-bats while wearing a Yankees uniform, Rodriguez has 23 hits and a .234 batting average, along with four homers, nine RBIs and 15 runs scored. They're not nearly as awful as the .071 average from the '06 ALDS, but also not befitting a man repeatedly touted as the greatest performer of his generation.

In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" this offseason, Rodriguez didn't pull any punches in explaining the problem.

"I've stunk," Rodriguez said. "You know? I've done very poorly. And that's not acceptable."

In the lexicon of great Yankees, Reggie Jackson made the most out of his five-year stint in pinstripes, swirling his October heroics into a legend that merited inclusion in Monument Park. Rodriguez is now approaching his own five-year checkpoint; where are Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough to play supporting roles in A-Rod's signature Yankee moment?

As someone who knows a thing or two about the subject, Jackson -- now a special advisor with the Yankees -- said last year that the constant criticism of Rodriguez is unfair.


"I have tremendous faith that I will be a world champion."
-- Third baseman
Alex Rodriguez

"The one guy I could relate to in the now is Alex Rodriguez," Jackson said. "Alex takes a lot of heat all the time -- he's never good enough. This guy's hit almost 60 home runs and brought in 150 [runs], and it's still not enough. I played a lot of my career like that."

In November, Rodriguez revealed that he has spoken with quarterback John Elway about the need for a title to validate a great career. A premier NFL performer of the 1980s and 1990s, Elway's legacy wasn't complete until he led the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories in 1997 and '98.

"Definitely, the exclamation point in his career was the two championships at the end," Rodriguez said. "I have tremendous faith that I will be a world champion."

Then again, few baseball players have the unique skill set to strap a 25-man roster onto their back and carry it to 11 victories, especially under October's pressure. Rodriguez didn't call the pitches when Chien-Ming Wang was hit around by the Tribe, nor did A-Rod unleash the swarm of Lake Erie midges that unnerved rookie Joba Chamberlain in Game 2.

The detractors will always be drawn to the player with the highest profile and highest salary. Yet two true-and-tested Yankees performers couldn't crack the Mendoza line last October -- Jeter's .176 batting average and Jorge Posada's .133 mark didn't do much to help the Yankees either.

In the end, it's still a team game. Rodriguez may one day be able to hoist a World Series trophy over his head, but this much is certain -- he won't do it alone.

It may be time for new measures, something A-Rod began to realize in '07. Perhaps if he continues to cultivate his rapport in the clubhouse and helps the younger players around him grow, as he did last season with Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, that elusive playoff success will follow.

"Alex is awesome," Johnny Damon said. "He never gets the credit he deserves for being a great teammate. People just know of him as a great ballplayer, but he's much better than that.

"He hasn't won a championship yet, but just the things he does -- he'll move the runners over, try to get them to third base to make it easier for the hitters to get them in. He hustles. He's got to make sure to get the younger guys to follow him, because he's done it for so long."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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