TAMPA — Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez says he's in a "better place" and enjoying life, so it was fitting he began his first news conference of the season with a joke.
"Did anybody see the Super Bowl?" a smiling Rodriguez asked reporters. "Great game."
Rodriguez, 35, was making light of the much-hyped television shot during the Super Bowl when he was shown being fed popcorn by his girlfriend, actor Cameron Diaz. Rodriguez denied reports he was angry over getting caught on camera, saying it was "actually pretty humorous."
"Five or six years ago, I'd probably come out with some bogus statement and probably would have been upset," he said. "Who would be upset about getting fed popcorn? It was pretty funny."
The fact that a popcorn controversy and weight loss were the biggest topics Rodriguez addressed Monday said it all. It was two years ago, in the same tented pavilion, that he was grilled over his performance-enhancing drug use. But Rodriguez says he's as healthy as he has been in years, in great shape and primed for a big season, hoping to deliver the type of production that the Yankees need to return to the World Series.
"I hear there's a lot of doubters out there, and that's always fun," Rodriguez said. "The bottom line is we won 95 games (last season). We have pretty much the same core coming back this year, and we were two wins shy of the World Series. … We had a very bad taste in our mouths from leaving Texas (after losing in the ALCS), and we just want to come back. …
"We expect to do a lot of good things, and in order for us to do that, I know I will have to play at an elite level, and I'm ready for that challenge."
Rodriguez, who had hip surgery in 2009, feels that way partly because he said Dr. Marc Philippon gave him the "green light" in the offseason to go back to "100 percent training." No longer burdened by rehab, Rodriguez said he's down from 230 to 222 pounds, a weight he hasn't played at since the 2007 season, when he hit 54 homers and had 156 RBIs.
Rodriguez has averaged at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs the past three years (including 30 and 125 last season) but said he can improve and called those numbers "really not acceptable." He said he felt a little restricted in his swing due to the hip last season, which limited his power. He also had some hesitation in his movements defensively. Both issues shouldn't be problems this year.
"This year I feel I'm in a good place to play at a really high level, and I think my team needs me to play at a high level to reach our ultimate goal, which is to win the World Series," he said.
Rodriguez sounded off on a lot of topics:
• He believes shortstop Derek Jeter will bounce back to have a "Derek Jeter-type year." "I expect him to get right back to form," he said.
• Rodriguez said despite the possibility ace CC Sabathia will opt out of his contract after this season, he doesn't anticipate him being in another uniform any time soon.
• He said retired left-hander Andy Pettitte will be missed, but it also opens up opportunities for other players to step up and lead, including himself.
• Rodriguez praised the Red Sox's offseason moves, acquiring ex-Ray Carl Crawford and slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, saying "they'll be tough to beat this year."
• Rodriguez said he hopes to be able to be the Yankees' everyday third baseman until he's 39 or 40, maybe longer.
And, of course, Rodriguez was asked if there'd been any positive fallout from his much-publicized popcorn cameo.
"No popcorn endorsements yet," he said, smiling. "But our lines are open."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.