Amid the tumult and turmoil of the Biogenesis investigation, Alex Rodriguez insisted he just wanted to get back on the field. The baseball diamond has always been a sanctuary for the troublemaking slugger, a place where he can perform without acting, and act without trying to perform. He has taken his show to many theatres, but the ball field seems to be the one life arena in which A-Rod need not think about his next move. Instinctively, he just does it.
So of course he would want to get back on the field. The bigger question was whether or not his hometown fans wanted the same thing.
After hitting .214 in his 15-game rehab stint in the Minors, no one was exactly clamoring for his return. His bat seemed yet another hollow one in a lineup lacking power, while the accompanying circus wasn’t one anyone cared to see. Between his futility at the plate in the 2012 playoffs and his feeble rehab numbers, the general consensus was that A-Rod stood little chance against big league pitching.
Would he embarrass himself? (As if he hasn’t enough already). Would he further cripple a hobbling team? Would he be removed from his teammates and isolated in the dugout?
As it turns out, the answer to all those questions is – for now – no.
In his first at-bat Monday night in Chicago, which was watched with the attention of a blue whale sighting, Rodriguez dropped a single into left field and took an excited turn at first base, before scooting back to the bag and pounding fists with first base coach Mick Kelleher. He talked it through with Mick, because ballplayers always like to go over the things they’ve done correctly, then took his gentleman’s lead off first and prepared to scamper off toward second. He was truly in his element.
Still, it was a bloop single that landed in that impossible spot just in front of the leftfielder, just beyond the shortstop. He was good to have gotten around on the fastball, yes, but lucky to have hit it where he did. While the base knock may have set up a Yankees rally that was to be duly squandered, it did little to convince the doubters that A-Rod could still hack it in the Bigs.
Ironically, it was in his next two plate appearances – which both resulted in outs – that Rodriguez proved himself up to the task. In the fourth, he lifted a fly ball deep to right center field, where it was run down just in front of the warning track. It wasn’t a particularly loud out, as commentators like to say, but it was proof that A-Rod can still conjure up a power stroke to the opposite field. Then in the sixth, he laced a line drive to left field that was hit hard enough to bring the bleacher outfielders to their feet and tickle Michael Kay’s homerun call.
That ball is hit deeeeeeeeeep to left field. Try though they did, neither Rodriguez nor Kay could will the ball over the wall.
But A-Rod proved on Monday, then again on Tuesday when he scolded a ball to dead center for an especially loud (!) out, that it won’t be long before he indulges Kay and his radio counterpart John Sterling in a homerun narration. He is seeing the ball well, taking confident, fluid swings, and generally making solid contact. In short, he is doing pretty much everything that everyone said he couldn’t.
What’s more, there seems to be no lingering awkwardness, no festering bitterness, between Rodriguez and his teammates. Perhaps, if the Yankees weren’t struggling the way they are, there would be more room for some heart-to-heart chats. Up five games in the A.L. East and cruising along toward the playoffs is a decidedly better time to tell someone that, no, they’re not welcome here, than down six games in the Wild Card and gasping for air. Though some players may not want the team to need A-Rod, the fact is they do – and realizing that has made it easier for his teammates to let him back onboard.
That’s all good. But this is Alex Rodriguez we’re talking about, and where there’s good there’s bound to be bad. But first let’s get to the ugly.
On Tuesday night, a great baseball city lost itself in the trendiness of hating a player. When A-Rod was plunked by White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, the hometown fans cheered like scoundrels as Rodriguez walked to first. It happened so suddenly, so unblinkingly, one has to wonder if they even realized what they were doing. For it wasn’t a reactionary jeer, as if to say that’s what you get, but an immediate, joyous cheer as if to say do it again!! I completely understand the contempt felt for A-Rod; I feel some of it myself. To hate him is current, it’s in – but how far does it go? When you boo his every movement you make a mockery of the player. Fine. But when you celebrate one of the most dangerous plays in the game you make a mockery of baseball. That has to be where it stops.
The ugly in A-Rod’s season debut was certainly unusual. The bad was not. With the chance to be a hero in this series, Rodriguez, as he has so often in New York, faltered. Last night, with a chance to put the game away in the 9th as Ichiro stood on second, A-Rod struck out. Later, with Brett Gardner on third base and two outs in the 11th, he grounded out softly to third. It was the difference between a good start for Rodriguez and a classic one; the difference between a horrid road trip for the Yankees and a sufferable one. The blame, of course, can’t all be placed on A-Rod, as his teammates had a hand in going 1-16 with runners in scoring position. But when Rodriguez withered in the night’s high-stakes situations, it was hard not to think here we go again.
But here we go again is right. A-Rod is back with the Yankees, the latest lifeline in a season full of failed rescues. He looks just about the same as he always has, which, in innings 1 through 7, is great news for Joe Girardi’s club. After that, they better hope someone else is stepping up to the plate.