I have never had occasion to stick up for Alex Rodriguez. He’s been the highest paid player in the game, suspended for the use of PEDs, set records that can’t count, engaged in constant cat fights with Yankee brass, took awful advice from mega-agent and shark, Scott Borus, shanked in post-season play after gigantic contracts were inked, and loudly removed himself from the Derek Jeter fan club.
On the other hand, he had been in the major leagues for 22 years, 12 of those with the Yankees. He’s not only 4th on the all-time career home run list (696) behind Bonds(762*), Aaron (755), and Ruth(714), he was the youngest to reach 500. He holds the record for the most grand slams in a career (25), had 2086 runs batted in, and piled up 3115 hits.
When word came down from the front office over the past weekend that A-Rod was done as a Yankee as of Friday night, Coach Joe Girardi said he would find a way to give a slumping Rodriguez a few at bats and maybe a turn in the field.
Slumping Mark Teixeira kept the clean-up spot (he’s hitting .196 this season), and Aaron Hicks (.192) trotted out to right field. “My job description does not entail a farewell tour,” Girardi tweeted, defending his decision to sit Rodriguez as the Yankees battle to hang on to their spot, eighteen games ahead of Tampa Bay, six games behind the Orioles, seventh on the list of AL Wild Card prospects behind Houston, Seattle, Boston, Detroit, and Toronto.
Hey, every game counts. No room for sentiment in a dog eat dog pennant race.
Rodriguez asked to play in his last tilt against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Not much of a farewell tour, but enough to give him a sense of closure. As he sat on the bench, Sox fans chanted, “We Want A-Rod, We Want A-Rod” until he came to the plate as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning on Wednesday night. As he walked to the plate, the booing began; the fans had been aching to roast Rodriguez one last time. I remember the sounds of displeasure when Barry Bonds came to the plate at the end of his career, when he had altered his physiology with pharmaceutical, head-expanding voodoo; he was still the most feared hitter in the game, walked more often than pitched to. Rodriguez hasn’t been fearsome for a while, and the reception he got at Fenway was contemptuous with barely a whiff of respect.
But … Last night, Number 13 suited up as a Yankee for the last time, came to the plate after a hard rain softened, not knowing what he would hear as his name was announced, shoulders slightly lowered, claiming the batter’s box as he has from the start, ready for whatever came his way. Like the event itself, the skies over Yankee Stadium had been clouded, charged. Rodriguez himself joked, “It’s perfect. I’m a lightening rod!”
The pre-game “celebration” had all the earmarks of a grudging Yankee farewell coupled with ominous cracks of lightning, thunder, and torrential rain. Mariano Rivera and Reggie Jackson were on hand, representing the Yankee pantheon; Derek Jeter was not. Hal and Jennifer Steinbrenner offered lackluster congratulations. Ducking for cover with his daughters in tow, carrying the base signed by teammates, A-Rod scurried off the field with little fanfare; his career ending in darkness.
I don’t believe in fairy tales, heavy-handed sentiment or saccharine Hallmark moments, but I have been moved to tears again and again by acts of grace and courage in sports. When it comes to hockey, I do believe in miracles; when it comes to baseball, I believe in fans.
For all the ugly and confusing episodes in the Alex Rodriguez story, despite his very human flaws, A-Rod has been the best player in baseball at times, the best player on the Yankees for much of that time. When he came to the plate in his last game as a Yankee, we saw him as he has been all along, a gifted ballplayer who loved the game.
He expected jeering cat calls at the very least, deafening booing at worst. Almost as one, however, the crowd stood for Alex Rodriguez.
Fans cheered him with true affection. They went wild when he stroked a sharp double in his first at-bat, driving in a run. One more hit, one more double, one more run batted in. The fans showered him with all the love they had withheld for years. Against all odds, in that moment, Alex Rodriguez was what he had hoped to be – a beloved Yankee.
Sports are funny.
Joe Girardi had grouched his way through the week, resisting pressure to give Rodriguez something like recognition as his career ended. Then, on Friday, the game allowed him to toss Rodriguez a glove and send him out to play third base, A-Rod’s first game in the field this season. After the game, a sports commentator watching Rodriguez ground out in his last at-bat said something like, “Now you see what a forty-one year old ballplayer looks like.”
That’s not what I saw.
I saw A-Rod grab his glove and run from the dugout to third base like a kid getting a break in late innings in a Double A game for the Trenton Thunder. His grin ran from ear to ear. That’s the Alex Rodriguez I want to remember.