Amid boos at US Cellular Field in Chicago on Monday night, New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez took the field for the first time this year, beginning what may be the final on-field chapter of a tumultuous, storied career.
New Yorkers are gearing up for the drama of yet another dragged-out scandal, but the player who has hit 647 home runs over an astonishing 20-year career now has the slimmest of chances to salvage a moment or two of triumph.
“I just hope that there’s a happy ending there somewhere,” Rodriguez said after Monday’s 8-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. Earlier he described the last seven months as “a nightmare..., probably the worst time of my life.”
Things have not been much better for the Yankees, who sit in fourth place in the American League East, 10 games behind the archrival Boston Red Sox. And therein lies perhaps Rodriguez's last chance for a silver lining. Facing the prospect of a potentially career-ending 211-game ban at the end of the season, Rodriguez could gain a measure of redemption if he leads the Yankees on an improbable playoff run.
Rodriguez's pursuit of a happy ending will include a gaggle of lawyers pecking at the details of his involvement with Biogenesis, the Florida clinic that gave performance-enhancing drugs to major league players. And his decision to fight the suspension for his connection to the clinic means that a string of leaks detailing his involvement with the shady underworld of performance-enhancing drugs is likely to follow him until his appeal is heard after the season.
Not to mention all the boos and taunts. On Monday, there was something surreal to seeing Rodriguez on the field, returning from injuries that had kept him out all season, on the exact same day he received largest non-lifetime ban baseball has ever handed down.
Yet the Yankees surely need the embattled slugger, despite a nasty turn their relationship the past few weeks. Their lineup features a less-than-murderous row of hitters, including a meager, American League-low four home runs from their current third basemen.
“What we are going to see, Yankee fans are not going to know how to react,” says Patrick Rishe, a sports economist at Webster University in St. Louis. “They don’t want to support the use of performance enhancing substances – and the image that it teaches children – but also they will look at how Alex Rodriguez might be someone who can help them win ballgames right now, because the Yankees have had a very difficult season in terms of run production, and they have been hit with a plethora of significant injuries to key ball players.”
Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, one of Rodriguez’s closest friends, is happy to put up with the boos in exchange for Rodriguez's bat.
"I would say we need him a lot," he said. "If you can see, we don't have [Derek] Jeter right now, and the only guy you have is [Alfonso] Soriano in the lineup, the only righty. Hopefully, he comes back healthy and helps us win some games."
A strong August and September could help the sputtering Bronx Bombers slip into a wildcard playoff spot.
In the meantime, Rodriguez’s appeal may not be heard until November, according to observers. His case now goes to Fredric Horowitz, the baseball-appointed arbitrator hired by Major League Baseball after the previous arbitrator, Shyam Das, had overturned the 2012 doping suspension of Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun. (Braun last month accepted a 65-game suspension.)
More important to the Yankees than the expected traveling media circus around Rodriguez, perhaps, is the open question of whether he is still an elite – or even above-average – major leaguer.
“If Alex Rodriguez is in the Yankee clubhouse, and he is eligible to play, we have to look at that as a good sign for the Yankees,” says Dr. Rishe. “We can’t predict what the future may hold, so we also have to realize that this is a guy who is coming off his second major hip surgery – he’s still not in midseason form.”
So does Rodriguez even have the skills to play above the level of a middling journeyman? In his first big league game since last October, when he went 0-for-2 in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series to finish an embarrassing 3-for-25 postseason, Rodriguez hit a bloop single in his first at bat, and nearly missed hitting two balls out in his next two plate appearances. His winces were visible – a perfect storyline just missed.
“I know he was disappointed,” says Jim Fannin, a Chicago-based mental-performance coach who worked with Rodriguez from 1996 to 2010, and who spoke to his former client after Monday’s game. “But this is not what he envisioned when we started working together in 1996, that’s for sure.”
“He was more interested in what I thought about how he played, more interested in my evaluation of his performance,” continues Mr. Fannin, who has worked with with 600 clients, including 26 major league all-stars and four Cy Young Award winners. “Obviously, he hasn’t played since last year; he knows I’m an expert at performance, so he wanted me to evaluate his at bats.”
Throughout his career, Fannin says, Rodriguez has been known as a player who prepares maniacally – going back to 1996, when he tore through the league as a skinny 20-year-old in Seattle, coming just short of winning an MVP.
So despite the looming suspension, as well as the challenges of returning from injury, Rodriguez should get a chance to help the Yankees make a late-season run, or perhaps find that happy ending with his performance on the field – as unlikely as that may be.
“The A-Rod I know is a consummate pro,” says Fannin. “He will be the best prepared he can be on the field, he will put in the work to do that, and he’s got one objective: that’s to hit the ball solid with an accelerated bat head, which is the essence of his craft.”