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Steinbrenner multi-faceted

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 22, 2011

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TAMPA — With George Steinbrenner gone, the Yankees don’t quite have the pizzazz they had, but thankfully one of Steinbrenner’s sons, Hank, is carrying on the tradition of frank talk in an era in which too often the goal is to avoid controversy.

The fact that Steinbrenner, co-chairman of the team, so often throws caution to the wind, is refreshing, and allows for days such as yesterday, when the Yankees still can be pretty entertaining.

Steinbrenner spoke about socialism in baseball’s revenue sharing system and took an indirect shot at iconic superstar Derek Jeter on the same day Alex Rodriguez brought down the house when he opened his first news conference of the spring with, “Did anyone watch the Super Bowl?’’ He was referring, of course, to cameras catching his actress girlfriend Cameron Diaz feeding him popcorn at the NFL’s ultimate game.

What’s strange is that on revenue sharing Steinbrenner and the Red Sox actually have an alliance, since they’re usually the only teams that pay a luxury tax, and they also pay exorbitant amounts toward revenue sharing, which is divided among the small-market teams to use at their discretion.

Steinbrenner said he didn’t know what the final figure for 2010 was, but that he expected the Yankees to contribute about $130 million between revenue sharing and luxury tax, the most of any team in the league and the most, according to Steinbrenner, that the team ever has had to cough up. A few days ago, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino indicated the Sox contributed $86 million. It’s obviously a sore subject to the two teams.

“We’ve got to do a little something about that and I know [commissioner] Bud [Selig] wants to,’’ Steinbrenner said. “There’s a way. Obviously we’re very much allied with the Red Sox, and the Mets, and Dodgers, and Cubs in that area. At some point, if you don’t want to worry about teams in minor markets, don’t put teams in minor markets or don’t leave teams in minor markets. Socialism, communism, whatever, is never the answer.’’

When asked about the Red Sox’ spiraling payroll and offseason spending spree, Steinbrenner said, “John [Henry] is committed to winning, as we are. He’ll do what he has to do.’’

He added, “The Red Sox are always gonna be there with the Yankees along with five or six other teams who can win the World Series. This year it’s the Phillies. The AL East is [tough]. It’s the toughest division in American sports.’’

Steinbrenner said he sees a hunger returning to his team, the same hunger he saw in 2009 when the Yankees won it all.

“In ’09 I saw it,’’ he said. “Sometimes they celebrated a little too much last year. Some of the players, too busy building mansions and doing other things and not concentrating on winning. I have no problems saying that. They’ve come into this spring with a new hunger and that’s what it takes to win.’’

The one player who built a “mansion?’’ Yes, Jeter, who maybe had his worst season ever in 2010, hitting .270.

“I’m not singling anybody out,’’ Steinbrenner said. “This year, from what I’ve seen by our coaches, they’ve come in with a real new drive and determination, the kind they had in ’09. I think they felt embarrassed last year. It bothers them.’’

Rodriguez received full clearance from Marc Philippon, the Vail, Colo., surgeon who performed the surgery on the torn labrum in A-Rod’s right hip. So some two years after the surgery, he no longer has any restrictions, and full-steam workouts in Miami enabled him to lose a few pounds. Rodriguez believes that will make him more flexible at the plate, with hopefully no loss of power.

The weight loss also should help at third base, where he had lost some range. “I thought the ones that I caught, I caught pretty good. I found a little hesitation in my lateral movement that I’ve addressed this winter and I expect it to be much better,’’ said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who is coming off a down season for him (.270 with 30 homers and 125 RBIs), was said to have been upset about cameras focusing on him and Diaz at the Super Bowl. Not the case, he said.

“That was actually pretty humorous,’’ said Rodriguez, who has hit 613 homers and driven in 1,831 runs. “Who would be upset about being fed popcorn?’’

Rodriguez, who turns 36 July 27 and still has seven years remaining on his contract, won’t rule out having to change positions in the future, but he was not willing to address the topic yesterday.

He said he feels good entering the season because for the first time since the hip surgery, he was not rehabbing the hip but training to play baseball.

“My hero was Cal Ripken, and I think he played until 39 or 40,’’ said Rodriguez.

Steinbrenner said that general manager Brian Cashman spoke to Rodriguez this winter about becoming a more vocal leader and mentor to younger players, a role Rodriguez is more than willing to take on. With his friend, Andy Pettitte, retired, Rodriguez recognized the need to be more of a leader.

“I’m in a better place after all the things that happened. I’m enjoying my life and enjoying the game,’’ he said. “I’m in more of a leadership and mentoring position. Overall, just a different place. It’s been an uphill battle since the surgery. We had a short offseason after we won the World Series. Rehabbing this is as healthy as I’ve felt. A whole winter behind me of real work.

“I hear there’s a lot of doubters out there and I think that’s a good thing. Bottom line is we won 95 games last year and we have a lot of guys who will play with a chip on their shoulder with something to prove.’’

Rodriguez said he believes he’ll improve against lefthanded pitching, against which he hit a puzzling .217 last season.

He thinks the Yankees will miss Pettitte, but said, “It’s an opportunity for others to step up.’’ He also believes CC Sabathia won’t opt out of his contract after this year because, “he loves the Yankees.’’

When asked about the Red Sox adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, he said, “They always do a great job. They know what they’re doing up there. They got two great players, two very good offensive players, who can defend. Last year they went through some tough injuries and I know they’re excited about competing this year, and we are, too.’’

The Sox are pumped up by their fancy new roster, while the Yankees are carrying the bitterness of losing to the Rangers in the American League Championship Series.

While the franchises are in agreement that revenue sharing has to be revisited, their differences continue to stoke the rivalry that should be even better a year after both teams experienced failure.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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