Yankee Stadium. Thursday, Aug. 22, 8:40 p.m.
The man makes the mundane seem memorable.
“Small bites,” he is saying to the crowd around his locker. What he means is: The Yankees must focus on the day-to-day in order to make up the ground lost during a summer spent without him.
“Every game is precious,” Alex Rodriguez says.
As this season winds into its final month, each moment with Rodriguez feels the same way. A 211-game suspension still hangs over his head, a sentence that could either be drastically reduced — or effectively end his career. Each at-bat is an event.
But to see him here, inside his own clubhouse, the only player in the room, is to see him at what passes for peace. Earlier this week, after his legal team launched incendiary charges against both the Yankees and Major League Baseball, which prompted a vigorous series of countermeasures from both parties, Rodriguez stepped in. He says he told his representatives to stand down. The focus should be on baseball. He maintains that stance.
Four days earlier, Ryan Dempster hit Rodriguez with a fastball. The Yankees thought he did so on purpose, and the ramifications of this action were still being felt. Red Sox leader David Ortiz suggested Dempster “woke up a monster” in the Bronx. Asked about this, Rodriguez declines to speculate.
“For me, I’m just laser-focused on the mission at hand,” Rodriguez says. “And that’s a big three-game series against Tampa. See you guys there.”
Rodriguez parts the crowd and exits. He will go 6-for-21 on this trip, with a pair of homers and three RBI. He will show signs of fatigue; he will show signs of revival. The peace he requested followed him. There were no spats. No pitchers threw at him.
Yet even as a 2-4 trip further sank the Yankees’ slim October hopes, Rodriguez remains a source of fascination. He infuriates his employers. He puzzles some of his own teammates. Opponents laugh at the sideshow, yet marvel at his talent. Which is why each moment is so precious.
Tropicana Field, Friday, 3:45 p.m.
He lopes into the visitors’ clubhouse with a smile on his face and a plastic cup filled with green tea in his hand. When reporters are present, Rodriguez makes himself scarce. During this trip, he will conduct just two group interviews, both on Tuesday, a pre-game discussion about his 650th homer, and a post-game discussion about his 651st.
But he appears buoyant upon arrival, energized by his team’s opportunity, walking in without the headphones that often cover his ears like white seashells. He sidles over to greet Mariano Rivera. He shouts “What up, Mick?” to first-base coach Mick Kelleher. Someone remarks on the neon yellow laces inside his Nikes.
“I’m from Miami,” he says with a grin. “I’ve got to turn it up a notch.”
Saturday, 10:13 p.m. Tropicana Field is a riotous cauldron of kitsch. Clattering cowbells echo off the roof. Multi-colored lights flicker on the catwalks high above the diamond. On the stadium scoreboard, a tuxedo cat masquerades as a D.J. and a French bulldog barks out strikeouts. Video clips show David Hasselhoff crooning and Mr. T grumble-rapping.
The maelstrom simplifies into disgust when Rodriguez steps to the plate in the ninth inning. Fernando Rodney stands on the mound. He blazes a 97-mph fastball toward the inside corner of the plate, the sort of pitch that flummoxed Rodriguez in the second half of 2012. Righties in general “were pretty much eating him up” that season, hitting coach Kevin Long will say a few days later.
Rodriguez must prove to opposing pitchers that he can handle these inside fastballs, Long says. Rodriguez will do just that on Tuesday night, smoking an inside fastball, also 97 mph, for a single off Toronto reliever Neil Wagner. Long considers this an excellent sign.
“It just lets pitchers know that they better execute the pitch,” he says. “And if they want to go there, they better take their chances.”
Rodney takes his chance. Late to make contact, Rodriguez can only roll a grounder over to the second baseman. The noise chases him into the dugout.
Sunday, 11:53 a.m.
In the morning, Joe Girardi often exchanges text messages with Rodriguez. Girardi likes to check on his condition, and utilizes the information when crafting his lineup. He grants Derek Jeter similar treatment. But on days like this, he does not require communication.
Rodriguez spent the past two nights in the field. He went 1-for-8. Trying to scoop a sizzling grounder on Saturday, he crumpled to the ground as the ball shot past him. Girardi did not write his name into the lineup.
“Sometimes, you just make decisions because you think it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “Because guys are going to want to be out there. But sometimes putting them out there becomes counter-productive over a long period of time.”
Rodriguez will pinch-hit later in the day, rapping a single before getting doubled off second. When the clubhouse opens after the game, his belongings have already been packed up.
If 35,000 people come out here just to boo you, you’ve done something right.” — Opposing player talking about Alex Rodriguez
Rogers Centre. Monday, 3:55 p.m.
Lyle Overbay reaches into his locker for a piece of paper. He spent five seasons in Toronto, but discovered the ferocity of the fan base after he departed. “Oh, they hate me here,” he says, his eyes conveying both amusement and confusion.
The piece of paper is his ticket to obscurity. It is the Yankees lineup.
“I’m batting behind him today,” Overbay says. “They won’t even hear my name.”
Monday, 8:17 p.m.
Entire patches of the upper deck here are empty, but Rodriguez endures his usual greeting at the plate. The park is humming when R.A. Dickey throws his second pitch of Rodriguez’s second at-bat. It is a 79-mph knuckleball, darting back over the plate. Rodriguez powers a drive deep to right field, an opposite-field blast on an offspeed pitch.
Upon impact, Rodriguez pauses for just a moment, then jogs to first. His pace is brisk. His face reveals nothing. It is the 650th home run of his career. The Yankees once expected to celebrate these milestones, and included in his contract a series of marketing bonuses for them. When Rodriguez ties Willie Mays at 660, he will earn $6 million.
The next afternoon, Girardi fields questions about why Rodriguez’s latest achievement received such little fanfare.
Tuesday, 9:03 p.m.
The voice emerges from a mostly quiet stadium. The Yankees already lead by six runs, and all thoughts are locked onto the bruised right hand of Robinson Cano. Years ago, a potential injury to Rodriguez would be considered a similar catastrophe. But now a lone voice can be heard taunting him.
“Swing now!” the man shouts. “Swing now, A-Rod!”
Earlier in this at-bat, Rodriguez swung through a 94-mph fastball from Esmil Rogers and fouled off another. Perhaps the man is hinting at Rodriguez’s diminished bat speed. Or perhaps he just wants something nonsensical to scream.
Either way, when Rogers opts for a 1-2 curveball, Rodriguez times his attack with precision. The result is remarkable, a soaring parabola into the first deck behind the center field wall.
There are two things worth remembering about Alex Rodriguez. Yes, he is 38, with a pair of surgically repaired hips and a body creaking from the strain of two decades in the game. But Long mentions the other factor the next afternoon.
“It’s still Alex Rodriguez,” Long says. “At the end of the day, his numbers speak for themselves.”
Wednesday, 8:26 p.m.
But, of course, his body has limitations. The Yankees receive a reminder the next night. It comes as Rodriguez attempts to score from first base on a double by Mark Reynolds. He chugs the requisite 180 feet to third, and barrels homeward guided by the waving arm of third-base coach Rob Thomson.
The play at the plate is not particularly close. A relay cuts him down as he slides. In the dirt, Rodriguez unwinds both legs in front of him and leans forward to stretch. He pulls himself up, claps both hands and leaves.
Later that night, Girardi defends the move. But Thomson blames himself for poor positioning on the play. “It was a bad decision,” he tells the New York Post.
Wednesday, 9:53 p.m.
The trip ends in three outs. Rodriguez represents the first. This trip was a dud. The Yankees trail by five runs, their playoff probability is shrinking and the mood afterward will be somber.
There is nothing Rodriguez can do to alter this, not with one swing. He strikes out against Darren Oliver, a fellow veteran of 20 seasons. Rodriguez first faced Oliver in June 29, 1996, another lifetime ago. Back then, the focus really was on baseball.
A few fans behind the dugout wave farewell as Rodriguez leaves. Another stands to snap a photograph. The volume in the park lowers. The show is over.
“Let me tell you something,” one opposing player said earlier in the week. “If 35,000 people come out here just to boo you, you’ve done something right.”