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02/25/10 6:15 PM ET

Bodley: A-Rod at peace with himself

Yanks slugger amazed at what he's been through in past year

TAMPA, Fla. -- A year ago Alex Rodriguez, head down, walked out of a giant white tent nestled next to George M. Steinbrenner Field and hit rock bottom.

Those last three words are his.

Thursday, Rodriguez sat behind a table in the same white tent, but the circus had left town. He happily answered reporters' friendly questions and was at peace with himself.

The last three words are his.

I asked the Yankees' third baseman if he felt he was turning the page a year ago when he walked away after confessing to the world, his teammates and reporters that, yes, he was a steroids user while with the Texas Rangers from 2001-03.

"It was the most difficult day of my life; if not that, certainly among the top three," he answered. "It was very embarrassing. I would never want to do that again, but looking back, it was a necessary step for me."

A-Rod, the highest-paid baseball player in the land, tasted ashes. There was the steroids scandal, his association with strippers that dominated the back pages of New York tabloids and a divorce. He says he looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw. His confessional was followed by hip surgery that kept him on the shelf for six weeks.

As his teammates were beginning the 2009 season that would culminate with the Yankees' 27th World Series championship, Rodriguez was in Vail, Colo., undergoing rehabilitation for his repaired hip.

"I think I took that [rehab] time to look in the mirror and be honest with myself," he said. "I think the minute I did that, I started feeling liberated and more comfortable. When I came back to Baltimore [rejoining the Yankees on May 8], I just felt like I had nothing to lose.

"I could just go out and play baseball. I know the chips were stacked against me, but I was coming to a team that had an opportunity to win."

In his shortened season (124 games), A-Rod batted .286, blasted 30 homers and drove in 100 runs. Then, he exorcised the haunting reputation he couldn't produce in the postseason, batting .365 with six homers and 18 RBIs.

"What he did in five-plus months is astonishing," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "We really didn't know what he would be able to do when he came back. There were no expectations."

A-Rod's take on that: "From as low as any person or any athlete can probably be to where we ended in early November, I'm in awe of. I can't believe it was me it was happening to."

Girardi believes when a person is at peace with himself "and not so many things are pulling at you, your focus is so much better. I think that's where Rodriguez was last year."

It will be impossible to erase the steroids blemish from his record. His foolish use of performance-enhancing drugs will always be a sad chapter in his legacy.

But he's convinced himself he had to reinvent Alex Rodriguez, the man first and the ballplayer second.

Because he is who he is and the fact he wears the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, he'll always be in the headlines -- on the field and off.

When he returned to the Yankees last May, he became more of a teammate, taking a few steps down from his lofty pedestal.

"The thing Alex really tried to do last year was become more of a leader," said Girardi. "And he did."

Rodriguez said producing in the postseason "wasn't a monkey, it was a humongous gorilla that came off my back. I felt that. It was a heavy gorilla, and now I just have an opportunity to play baseball, have fun and focus on what I did in 2009. When I returned, I divorced myself from numbers and personal achievements. I bought into the whole team concept of winning ballgames. It was a lot more enjoyable for me."

The humble Rodriguez was amazed at the new comfort level he found last year in the Yankees' clubhouse.

"For me, that was a lot more playing baseball and a little less talking," Rodriguez said. "I had to leave a lot of things, be honest with myself and move on to what I do best. I found a niche with my teammates. That was a lot more enjoyable."

He was asked if hitting rock bottom has helped him appreciate more what has happened to him since.

"I sat here last year and said some things I needed to act upon and be accountable for," Rodriguez said, not going into details. "I think actions speak louder than words."

Many of the same reporters were under the tent Thursday who were there a year ago.

Rodriguez looked out at them and offered: "This is definitely a much different day. Last year was very embarrassing, something I wouldn't want to do again. But looking back, it was a very important day.

"I've done a lot of growing up and have realized a lot of things."

He didn't say it, but I know when he stares in that mirror today, he likes who he sees.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.