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ON BASEBALL

A-Rod arrives, via high road

TAMPA -- He's not to the point of turning in his Yankee uniform for greasepaint, floppy shoes, and his own act under the big top. But Alex Rodriguez said that he actually agrees with Trot Nixon, whose verbal salvo at A-Rod last week from Fort Myers -- following a winter of sniping by Curt Schilling -- has touched off a round of daily shots at the Yankee star that so far has shown no signs of abating in Red Sox camp.

No, not the part about being a "clown," which is what Nixon called the Yankees' third baseman last week. A-Rod didn't bite at that insult, or none of the others cast his way by the Sox, opting to take the high road in his first appearance of the spring in Yankees' camp yesterday morning.

But Nixon had a point, Rodriguez said, when the Sox outfielder didn't include A-Rod on his list of players he thinks of first when he thinks of the Yankees.

"As far as earning your stripes, I really couldn't agree [more] with Trot Nixon and the guys that have said that, because, hopefully in due time, when I pay the price like Paul O'Neill and Roger Clemens did, then the fans of New York would realize that, hopefully, I'm a Yankee," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez claimed ignorance of much of what has been emanating from Sox camp. For those who know him, and his awareness of every word written or said about him, that would seem to be a stretch, precisely the kind of stance that leads some to label him disingenuous, or worse (Jose Canseco called him a "phony" in his book, which, as "Juiced" damage goes, is more tolerable than Jose saying he stuck a needleful of steroids in your buttocks).

But he refused to be drawn into returning fire, though he delivered a jab of his own, intentional or otherwise, when he referred to Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo by the wrong name.

"Brandon is a great pitcher," Rodriguez said. "I played against him in high school."

Relayed A-Rod's remark back in Fort Myers, Arroyo had his doubts about the innocence of the mistaken identity.

"You would think he'd know [my name]," Arroyo said. "It might be a mistake, but probably not. He's been listening to Tim McCarver."

Fox TV analyst McCarver also misspoke during the postseason last October and called Arroyo "Brandon."

Rodriguez wouldn't speculate on the Sox' motives in running him down, which is beginning to take on WWF dimensions with the constant baiting. "I can't get into somebody else's brain," said Rodriguez, admitting that he found it all a bit "perplexing."

"The only thing I can say is they are the world champions. I have the utmost respect for all those guys, 1 to 25. They're a great team. They have a very good manager in Terry Francona. We have a great challenge ahead of us.

"The bottom line is they won. They've earned the right to say whatever they need to say."

Yankees manager Joe Torre didn't point a finger at the Sox sniping, but after Rodriguez's session, he lamented to reporters what he perceives as a decline of civility in the sporting world and beyond.

"I think as a whole there's a lack of respect, and it's unfortunate," Torre said. "I know I speak for my generation or part of my generation. It's just reality, unfortunately. I think part of the reality is the reality shows on TV."

Perhaps underscoring his determination to present himself as not being wounded by the shots at a player the Sox coveted as much, if not more, than Schilling last winter, Rodriguez tried to make a case that the insults have their upside.

"We're in a world where people have a lot of opinions," Rodriguez said, "and what makes the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox such a great rivalry is that so many people have their own opinions.

"I think all of this is for the good of the game, believe it or not."

Sticking to the Ripley's theme, Rodriguez said he also understood why none of his teammates has publicly rallied to his defense. That includes captain Derek Jeter, who last week told reporters the matter was between A-Rod and the Sox.

"It just tells you how classy our organization is," Rodriguez said. "Our players, they don't get caught up in that everyday stuff. And I appreciate their position. I'm going to say the same thing, probably. They'll say that I'm not supporting myself. And that will probably be a big story, too."

A-Rod joked he already could see the headline: "A-Rod doesn't back up A-Rod."

But eventually, he said, this all will be much ado about nothing.

"I think over time, when I look at my career after 20 years, Game 6, the slap, will all be very trivial compared to what I accomplished," he said.

"The Slap," as A-Rod called it, has been the lightning rod of much of the Sox' criticism of the Yankees star, beginning with Schilling, who called it a "junior high" play.

"It was a brilliant play," Rodriguez said. "We almost got away with it. Let me tell you, it took a lot of guts and the right call -- I think it was [umpire] Jim Joyce who made the call. To make that call in Yankee Stadium, in that environment . . . I was stuck in an alley, boys, there was nowhere to go. I gave it my best karate chop -- I only made it to yellow belt in karate. It was just one of those things.

"If that game was played in June, I probably wouldn't have done that."

Rodriguez, repeating a theme he sounded in the offseason, said he would shoulder the burden of the Yankee collapse.

"Blame it on me," he said. "If there's one guy to blame, blame it right here."

The Sox apparently are bent on not letting him forget his culpability. And on this day, at least, Rodriguez pretended he didn't see any of the pigeon droppings on his name, reputation, and uniform.

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