NEW YORK – With about 10 minutes remaining in his tour as a tin duck in the All-Star shooting gallery Monday afternoon, Alex Rodriguez was asked by his public relations man if it was his desire to leave immediately after the press conference.
Rodriguez cast his eye across the room, the floor seemingly tilted in his direction, bringing even reluctant reporters to his table, and returned a what-do-you-think chuckle.
"Yeah," he said. "What's the option?"
They laughed. Leaving early probably wasn't one, no matter how attractive.
These moments here, in New York, a city leaning in, a sporting nation leering, the back pages on fire, they remind me of the day New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca – at the time up to his thick little neck in street-corner humiliation – groused that he'd been Clown of the Week for a month, and he was getting tired of it. Years ago, I remember one Yankee or another declaring a touchy subject off limits, snapping, "That's not news anymore," and me thinking, sadly, that was not and would never be his decision to make.
And so, on the occasion of one of the grand baseball events in the history of this city – the All-Star Game in the final season of Yankee Stadium – we got A-Rod, we got Madonna, we got a line of alleged previous lady volunteers, we got a marriage gone bad and we got every ball writer in the country within 10 miles of it. What could go wrong?
Someone else, given the same circumstances, might have ducked Monday's hour-long, bilingual grilling.
In fact, $20 changed hands in the Grand Hyatt lobby just after noon, one local baseball writer having bet another that A-Rod would no-show.
He arrived in a black sport coat over a white Oxford shirt, blue jeans and Nikes.
The people who know Rodriguez reasonably well can't decide if this stuff finds him or he invites it. Some believe he attracts gossip and scandal because of his status in the game, both as the best and highest-paid player in it. Others conclude that no man could possibly experience so many train wrecks without tampering with the lines himself.
Yet, and this seems to be his bottom line, he generally hits when he's supposed to hit (for six months out of seven). The past several weeks, or about the time Madonna and Lenny Kravitz and, oh, whoever else, began showing up next to his name in the papers, his batting average has fallen 20 points. But, he's driving in runs, supporting a batting order that is sagging around him, and toiling for a team that will need every bat true and every head straight if its streak of consecutive postseason appearances is to reach 14.
As usual, whatever happens will find its way back to A-Rod, deserved or otherwise. Only A-Rod could know which it is. But he stood in and, with Yankees PR director Jason Zillo never far away, fielded questions both blunt and couched. He pushed the smiles and eye contact, and neither apologized nor gloated. He was, for a little under an hour, just a guy getting through it, surviving the moment, spinning the headlines.
"Five years ago," he said, "I would have been under this tablecloth somewhere."
Yeah, if nothing else, he's grown into New York some, though New York itself still seems wary of him. It applauds his home runs, praises his MVP awards, appreciates his skills, but, you know, there's this little matter of championships still undone, and damn he gets himself in some situations.
"I'm going to focus on the positives," he said. "I never looked in the mirror and felt sorry for myself. It's just part of it. I know that a lot of people, whatever they read, they can relate to one, two or three things that's occurred to me."
That, of course, would be a serious stretch. Other than maybe the Madonna thing.
"It's what I get to focus on for four hours a day," he said of baseball, not Madonna. "And it's just magical for me. That's the only thing I know how to do in this world, is be a baseball player. I get paid insanely well to be a baseball player. Every morning when I wake up I thank God that I get to play baseball. If not, I'd be broke and starving and who knows what I'd be without baseball. I just go back to the game, my passion for winning, my work ethic. I still have to improve on a lot of aspects of my game. And the desire has never been stronger."
He's held constantly to the standards of Derek Jeter, winner, gentleman, native Yankee.
"He was a Yankee fan, I was a Met fan," Rodriguez noted. "That's why everyone hates me."
He laughed. It was a joke. Probably.
"I've only been dealing with New York for five years," he added. "He's had to deal with it for 13 years. He's been a model citizen. I wish I was as good as him dealing with you guys. I'm not. But, it's more entertaining."
And he laughed again. He was trying.
Chipper Jones, who would follow Rodriguez into the same room an hour later, shook his head at the enormity of being A-Rod at this time, on this day, in this city.
"Unbelievable," he said. "Unbelievable. Especially, I mean, we've all heard A-Rod's name for the last couple weeks, and it's hard. As somebody who's gone through a very public divorce, I can tell you it's hard."
Maybe it's a New York thing. Maybe it's an A-Rod thing. For the moment, they're blurred. He called it, "part of the blessing, part of the curse," which explains it pretty well. One doesn't come with the other, it seems, not for him.
"No regrets," he said. "Just keep moving forward."
Like he said, "What's the option?"