Less is more as A-Rod rehabs his image

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Mark McGwire has to be wondering why he's still being publicly flogged today, despite confessing to steroids while mixing in just enough remorse (and tears) to earn America's forgiveness. Or so he thought.

If a Dr. Phil moment worked for Alex Rodriguez, it should've worked for Big Mac, right? Not quite. Big Mac had one chance to re-write his legacy and blew it by insisting steroids didn't make him a better hitter. McGwire is stuck with that mistake; it's a debt he'll probably never be able to repay Hall of Fame of voters.

A-Rod, on the other hand, has never had a higher Q-rating, even though he, too, admitted he was a juicer. There are two reasons why the Yankee slugger's makeover has been a success.

First, he appeared to be more honest than McGwire in revealing the detail of his cheating. While A-Rod may have fudged some details, he at least provided the name of a complicit family member, as well as the exact time frame of his cheating.

Second, A-Rod was able to dodge the backlash by falling off the Yankees' radar while he underwent hip surgery. Unlike McGwire, who will face daily scrutiny as the Cardinals' hitting instructor, Rodriguez was absent for almost two months during his convalescence. By the time he returned in May, he'd decided to stop talking – or, if he did agree to be interviewed, kept his comments short, scripted and, most importantly, safe.

One other factor helped, too: A-Rod benefited from the newer, healthier atmosphere in the Yankee clubhouse. Joe Torre, Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina were gone, taking with them their antipathy for A-Rod. They were replaced by Joe Girardi, CC Sabathia and Nick Swisher, who accepted Rodriguez unconditionally. The warmth worked its way into every corner of the room, even defrosting Derek Jeter, who for the first time in almost a decade became friends with A-Rod again.

The result was stunning: A-Rod hit .365 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in the postseason while the Yankees were winning their first world championship since 2000. Rodriguez subsequently won the Babe Ruth Award, given out by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America to the postseason's MVP. It was a momentous coup for a celebrity who only 10 months earlier had lost most of his credibility with the media.

"So what's next, the Good Guy Award?" Rodriguez quipped while accepting the MVP award last weekend at the writers' black-tie dinner in Manhattan.

Rodriguez was smiling, but not altogether kidding. Assuming he passes his drug tests for the final 8-10 years of his career, A-Rod has a chance to turn his past steroid use into an asterisk. It's entirely possible that, unlike McGwire, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro, whose bodies of work are permanently stained, Rodriguez can keep affecting repairs all the ways to Cooperstown.

It doesn't hurt, either, that he's now officially a creature of the postseason. Those massive home runs off Joe Nathan in the ALDS and Brian Fuentes in the ALCS led to A-Rod's breakthrough moment in the World Series – driving in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of Game 4 against Brad Lidge.

That's when Reggie Jackson told Rodriguez, "you're free." Free of the choker label. Free of the anxiety that used to accompany him to the plate during every October at-bat.

"I was so tired of hearing (about choking)," Rodriguez told the YES Network's Kim Jones recently. "I was frustrated and tired of it. To be part of a championship team and deliver when my teammates needed me, it feels good."

Rodriguez promises he'll be just as relaxed in 2010 – and, more, specifically, he'll be just as boring in front of the TV cameras. Yankee officials couldn't be more pleased. Said one member of the front office, "Alex finally figured out the less he said, the easier it was for him to hit."

A-Rod will leave the squirming to others this summer. He has no particular beef with McGwire, but he's not about to come to Big Mac's defense, either. That's Rodriguez's business plan for the next 300 or so home runs: just chill.

The Mets' mess

FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal made several excellent points in his column this week about the Mets, illustrating their lack of leadership and how it's undermined Omar Minaya within the industry.

But the real culprit is ownership's unwillingness to spend. Without cash to recruit free agents, Minaya was forced to go through the motions during negotiations with Joel Pineiro and Bengie Molina, steering clear of Matt Holliday, John Lackey and Ben Sheets and letting Jon Garland slip away to the Padres.

Aside from signing Jason Bay, the Mets let the clock run out on every other significant player. Fiscal prudence turned to caution, and finally into inertia. The question is, why?

A day after the regular season ended, Jeff Wilpon strongly hinted the Mets would be aggressive in rebuilding his team.

"Ownership is dedicated to delivering a championship-caliber team ... once again, we'll be providing Omar with one of the highest payrolls in all of baseball to address our needs," he said.

But with the roster apparently set for 2010, the Mets' payroll now stands at $120 million. That's $20 million less than last year. The Wilpon family insists it was unaffected by Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, but it becomes harder to believe that when the Mets are ready to cut 15 percent off their payroll.