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Rodriguez cashes in on simplified approach

NEW YORK &

In the span of a four-minute interview at his locker one recent evening, Alex Rodriguez used the phrase "keep it simple," in various forms and conjugations, precisely five times in reference to questions about &

in chronological order &

his feeling at the plate, the degree of "fun" he gets from baseball, his new and improved swing, his dealings with reporters and his place in baseball's record books. Each time, he said it with a practiced nonchalance and a monotone voice, a vast departure from the expansive and introspective public face typically put forth by the New York Yankees superstar.

Clearly, for Rodriguez, keeping it simple is a complicated thing, but one for which the payoff has been huge.

This month, using a modified &

dare we say simpler? &

swing with fewer moving parts and a better rate of repetition, Rodriguez reached 14 homers faster than any player in history, and with the Yankees set to host the Boston Red Sox on the final weekend of the season's opening month, he already has driven in 34 runs &

an absurd pace that projects to 119 homers and 290 RBI.

Perhaps of equal importance, Rodriguez has been almost invisible in the media after three years of seemingly nonstop tumult in New York, shunning interviews by becoming a moving target in the clubhouse and donning earphones attached to a black iPod when he does make a brief stop at his locker. And when cornered, instead of impulsively blurting out whatever is on his mind, he basically says nothing.

"Personal records don't mean that much to me," Rodriguez said dismissively during the recent four-minute interview that occurred only after a handful of reporters had staked out his locker for 3&

65279;1/2 hours. "Just trying to play, that's it. Keep it simple."

History, it seems clear by now, has reserved a special place for Rodriguez as either the game's greatest player ever, or its most star-crossed &

or perhaps both. But never have both sides of A-Rod been as visible as now, with Rodriguez, 31, having a historic start while the Yankees (8-11 and in last place in the American League East entering Thursday) have struggled to piece together a pitching staff. And hanging over both Rodriguez and the team is the contractual power he wields to leave via free agency at the end of the season.

Both the revamped swing and the reined-in approach to the media were the result of painstaking effort on the part of Rodriguez and his handlers over the winter and spring. Perhaps never before in history had such intricate effort been put into the act of simplification.

The swing developed over the winter through work Rodriguez did with new Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, a 40-year-old virtual unknown who spent 17 years in the minor leagues as a player, coach and manager. Long felt Rodriguez's swing was too long, his leg kick too high, his weight shift too dramatic. During an intensive five-day summit at Rodriguez's Miami home, they broke the swing down and put it back together &

quicker, more compact and, yes, simpler.

It helped that Rodriguez also dropped about 15 pounds, reducing his body fat index from around 18 percent to about 10 percent.

"He looks leaner, quicker, (and) his move (toward the ball) is more explosive," one American League scout said. "That high leg kick (last year) got his body and his head moving too much and destabilized him. You don't see that anymore. He's getting more leverage by doing less (with his body). It's scary."

Getting Rodriguez to keep his mouth shut took no less work. In the past, he practically invited psychoanalysis by laying his thoughts out like an open book &

to the delight of reporters, but the chagrin of his teammates. When Rodriguez showed up at spring training in February, he made back-page news again in New York by acknowledging the deterioration of his personal relationship with shortstop and captain Derek Jeter.

But as far as Rodriguez was concerned, the important part of that session came at the beginning, in a less-publicized disclaimer: He would tell the truth that day about his relationship with Jeter, he told the assembled reporters, but never would talk about it again. And he hasn't. In fact, since then Rodriguez has had only one slip-up &

when he went on a New York sports-talk radio show and suggested that Yankees fans eventually would run him out of town &

while otherwise remaining, to use the watchword emphasized to Rodriguez by the Yankees' coaching staff, "vanilla."

"I know you guys are frustrated, and you're looking for some profound answer," Rodriguez told Yankees beat writers in Tampa. "But I don't have one. I'm having as much fun as I can and trying to keep it simple."