A-Rod's taste of what might've been

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Monday, April 27, 2015

Alex Rodriguez could feel it building in the Yankee Stadium crowd in his final three at-bats -- the energy, the anticipation of something grand. When he ends up fighting his bosses over the $6 million they owe him for matching Willie Mays' career home run total, Rodriguez can talk about the sights and sounds of this Sunday night in the Bronx, where the people wanted to witness history, tainted or not.

"The buzz was incredible," Rodriguez said.

For good reason. With two outs in the first, his team already down a couple runs after Curtis Granderson homered and Daniel Murphy scorched a double that left Mark Teixeira performing an unscheduled exhibition of non-rhythmic gymnastics, Rodriguez had launchedJon Niese's 2-2 curveball over the right-center wall. Of course, this was more than the first shot fired in a comeback that would secure a 6-4 victory and take the Subway Series from a Mets team that swaggered into it with an 11-game win streak.

This was Home Run No. 659, the one that moved A-Rod inside Mays' on-deck circle. Rodriguez is supposed to collect $6 million for tying Mays at 660 and then the same amount in bonuses if he ever runs down Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron andBarry Bonds. The Yankees are saying they have no intention of paying up, that Rodriguez forfeited his right to the cash by getting suspended for serial PED use and making such a mockery of his numbers that the team won't be able to market the milestone for its own financial benefit.

The Yankees can market Brett Gardner Replica Bat Day, and they can partner with Brandon Steiner to sell everything but peanut shells recovered from the Stadium floor, but they can't find a way to make a few bucks off A-Rod's equaling baseball's all-time greatest player, Biogenesis boost or no Biogenesis boost?

Rodriguez couldn't explain it, either. "I don't have a marketing degree," he said

Of course, it's an argument as silly as the team's refusal to include Rodriguez's chase of Mays among such heralded published milestones as Gardner's breathless pursuit of Wid Conroy for sixth place on the franchise's all-time stolen base list.

Rodriguez did make the cut for the Yankees' pregame notes, however. The last small-print bullet item in his bio reported -- two items below the reminder that Rodriguez had been suspended for the entire 2014 season -- that he ranked fifth on baseball's career home run list.

Listen, Rodriguez brought all of this on himself. As much as the Yankees should give him the $6 million, it's hard to hold a pep rally for a repeat offender who is back to making an average of $27.5 million per year after suing everyone in sight.

The greater point is this: At age 39, not far removed from two hip surgeries, Rodriguez is finding out the hard way why he should've gambled on his own talent and work ethic, rather than the underground potions and pills he relied on for much of his career.

Assuming he is playing clean this season -- and yes, that might be a dangerous assumption -- Rodriguez has to be wondering what he could've done as a ballplayer without all those trips to the dark side.

Consider what he was coming back from at the start of the year: Rodriguez hadn't played a game since Sept. 25, 2013, and he hadn't delivered a big season since 2010. In his most recent postseason appearance in 2012, A-Rod wasn't merely benched by Joe Girardi; he felt so disconnected from the cause that he was also reduced to flirting with women in the stands.

Yet in February, on the first day of workouts for position players, right after Teixeira declared a 30-homer, 100-RBI season his own personal target, the first baseman said this of Rodriguez: "I think he could do the same."

It sounded more like a punch line than a prediction, and Rodriguez himself nearly passed out at his locker when told of Teixeira's optimism. But A-Rod recovered in time to remind reporters he wouldn't be the first graying star to earn his keep.

"I've looked at [Michael] Jordan and other guys who have played well," he said. "I know that Jordan played all 82 games in basketball at the age of 39 or 40, so I think in today's day and age, anything is possible."

Yes, it's possible for Rodriguez to bat third for a team that desperately wanted to fire him. It's possible for A-Rod to emerge from a slump Sunday night to help put down a 14-4 opponent with a homer and a double.

"I'm sure Alex realizes the errors he's made, but he's a great player," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "I know he's 40 years old, but he got himself in great shape, and I'll tell you what, he's still dangerous. The home run to right-center -- that's when I know he's dangerous, when you can still do that at his age."

On cue, it seemed Rodriguez was in the middle of everything against the Mets. When the ball got away from the Mets on his double in the second, he hobbled his way toward third base with all the grace of a weekend beer leaguer. He made the third out (and grabbed his helmet with both hands in disbelief), but only a split-second after Chris Young crossed the plate to give the Yanks a 5-2 lead.

On his grounder in the fifth, an easy double-play ball for Wilmer Flores, the Mets shortstop forgot he wasn't trying to throw out a young and athletic A-Rod and fired a mile high after Gardner scored. It was just another reminder that Rodriguez is a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them. Before A-Rod illustrated why in his first at-bat, Girardi was asked about his designated hitter's long ball drought. Rodriguez had gone homerless in only 25 at-bats, but the controversy over the bonuses made it seem like much more than that, as did the past angst that gripped the slugger when he approached home runs Nos. 500 and 600.

"I haven't sensed it yet," Girardi said of another round of A-Rod anxiety. "But if it was, I'll sit down and talk to him."

Rodriguez canceled that conversation, at least for the time being.

"It's pretty amazing when you think about it," Girardi said after the game. "Six-hundred-and-sixty home runs. Man, that's a lot of home runs."

Even if he cheated on a few hundred of them.

"Willie was my father's favorite player," Rodriguez said of Mays. "I just remember hearing about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle all the time. He's one of my heroes."

Rodriguez's 659th homer did make the team's postgame notes, by the way, a couple items south of the more important news (wink, wink) that Chasen Shreve had earned his first big league victory. The Yankees will not be putting out a milestone update Monday night in anticipation of No. 660, nor will they be explaining why they gave Rodriguez the money they gave him in the first place.

Either way, this much is clear: Rodriguez cannot fully appreciate the endgame of what probably would've been a Hall of Fame career without any help from Anthony Bosch and other back-room chemists.

Maybe Rodriguez would've hit 500 homers clean, maybe 400. Who knows? Maybe he would've hit the full 659.

But he long ago surrendered the ability to find out.

Imagine what A-Rod would've felt in the Yankee Stadium crowd Sunday night had the fans been responding to a slugger they thought had played the game the way Willie Mays played it.

For Alex Rodriguez, that feeling would've been worth a lot more than six million bucks.

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