Alex Rodriguez met with reporters prior to the Yankees' season-opening game. (AP)
NEW YORK – For his first public moment in a Yankees uniform since the playoff disaster, Alex Rodriguez was told to stand in a doorway on Monday morning. He stepped from the Yankees clubhouse less than 1½ hours before his team's first game and walked not toward the blue backdrop with the team logo attached to the wall for the purpose of impromptu news conferences, but instead to a spot pointed out to him near the clubhouse door.
Perhaps the Yankees were saving him the inglorious symbolism of being pressed against a wall as he was grilled about his bad hip, his disappearance over these past few months while recovering from surgery or why his name showed up on the records of a Miami lab in possible violation of baseball's rules on performance-enhancing drugs. Or maybe the Yankees wanted to keep him away from anything that identified him as a part of the team, aside from the cap he wore on his head.
And as A-Rod has been for much of his professional baseball life, he tried to smile his way through the questions he didn't want to answer, speaking in the vague Miss America platitudes that always dodge the more serious subjects at hand.
Like when he was asked if he had heard reports the Yankees are looking for ways to void the rest of the $275 million contract he signed in 2007: "I don't want to focus on that, I want to focus on this glorious opening day."
Or if he knew what the players' association was doing on his behalf as the league investigates his linked name in the Miami New Times report about the Biogenesis lab: "Well, I'm not going to comment."
Or if he worried that commissioner Bud Selig might suspend him: "No, I'm not going to further discuss this, but at some point it will be all good."
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In his 20th season as a major leaguer, Rodriguez is more elusive and more unwanted than ever. His appearance at the Stadium seemed almost ghostly. He did not hang out in the clubhouse before batting practice, instead asking a clubhouse attendant to scurry to his locker, pull his uniform off a shelf and take it to him in the trainers room.
He did not come out to the field while his teammates hit. He did not banter with anybody or make any real show to the fans before the game that he had any connection to a team that seems to be lukewarm, at best, about him.
When asked if he would be introduced before the game, he snapped: "I don't need to be introduced to feel a part of this team."
Pressed further, he smiled.
"I'll tell you what, when I get introduced I want to be on the field [as an active player]," he said.
Which seemed more a way to avoid the thunder of boos than a justification of health. He wasn't the only injured Yankee to not be introduced on Monday. Derek Jeter remains in Tampa as he rehabilitates from surgery on a broken ankle. But somehow if Jeter were in Yankee Stadium on Monday he would have been introduced.
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Mostly A-Rod seems to disappear into a crevice that isn't really the Yankees and isn't really not. He spoke optimistically about his recovery, saying he believes he can come back a level that is "very high." He said he was relieved to learn of the tear in his hip after the season because it explained his drop-off in play. And he suggested that maybe he should have had the hip looked at during last season and not after.
"Hindsight is 20-20," he said. "If I would have, we wouldn't have had the very tough ending to last season. Live and learn."
He was not clear as to who "we" were. Did he mean himself? Did he mean the organization that appears to be holding him at great distance with a pair of tongs, lest his presence further stain an already challenging spring?
"Just his being here is good for us," reliever Mariano Rivera said before the game.
If only it seemed the Yankees felt that way. Rodriguez spoke for just four minutes on Monday before he disappeared behind the double doors of the clubhouse that is his but in a way not. It was likely a one-day appearance, a ceremonial visit to hold a place for some undetermined return to an organization that almost seems to wish he'd never come back.
Outside on the field, during the pregame ceremonies A-Rod skipped, Lou Pinella, his first manager in the big leagues, threw out the first pitch. It was a reminder of the early days when Rodriguez was young and hitting more than 40 home runs a year in Seattle. He was loved unconditionally there. And it might have been the best home he ever had, until he left it to chase greater riches.
Eventually, he came here, to the Yankees, to a team that pays him well but also shrugged when he finally returned so say hello on Monday morning.
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