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NEW YORK – Alex Rodriguez left Yankee Stadium just before midnight Friday, surrounded by family and friends. He wore a black suit and a silver tie, the shirt beneath white and crisp as a wedding invitation. In a pocket, he carried a plastic baggy a quarter filled with dirt, the kind they smooth and water and rake near third base and generally leave there.
“Third base was where I lived,” he said, as though that were explanation enough.
He’d scooped a handful in the few minutes he spent there in the last game he’d ever play as a Yankee, just maybe the last he’d play for anyone, and in the end – just maybe the end of his career – he took about what anyone does, a pocketful of dirt, some decent memories and a few ideas about tomorrow. At that moment, he had but one regret; in his haste to return to third base a final time, he’d neglected to wear a cup.
“So then,” he said, “I was really stressed.”
He is 41 years old. He was one of the finest to ever play the game, which should cover the story of Alex Rodriguez and a career that spanned two decades. It does not.
Thirty minutes after he waved one last time to a sold-out Yankee Stadium that chanted his name, he summed it up, “I’m someone who loves the game tremendously and has made some tremendous mistakes.”
He had one hit, a double, in four at-bats. He stood at third base in the ninth inning for one out. Then he hugged his teammates and his manager. Earlier, it had rained on his farewell ceremony, which many would find appropriate.
If you went out in your backyard, dug a hole, laid sticks and leaves over it and waited long enough, one morning you’d find Alex Rodriguez down there, hungry, dirty and a little chilly but otherwise fine. You’d perhaps wonder what A-Rod was doing in your backyard to begin with, after coming to terms with A-Rod being in that hole as well, and he may or may not have a reasonable explanation, but he’d have something, and then you’d shrug and tie one end of a rope to the bird feeder and toss the other end to A-Rod.
This is – and always has been – A-Rod. If there is a PED crisis, he will find it. If there is silence, he will break it, awkwardly. If there is a relationship, he will foul it. If there is a back page, he will grace it. If there is a boo, he will wear it. If there is a Hall of Fame, he will be plenty good enough for it, and yet somehow not. And if there is a truly rotten way to end a career – “unconditional release” qualifies – A-Rod will fall into that too, then conjure a way to put it to music and applause, to make it a parade, to walk away with $27 million.
Alex Rodriguez is not a New York Yankee anymore, not even a ballplayer anymore, not at the moment. He is instead a single father of two with some stories, the latest being the one about filling up a ballpark on a ridiculously hot summer night here so that everyone could watch him go from the middle of a big-league lineup to fired in, like, three hours.
This was the conclusion of one of those weeks in New York when it was fair to wonder if everything that could have gone wrong actually did. Somebody must have forgotten something.
It would, therefore, be instructive to know that the squall struck only after Alex, his mother, his brother, his sister, his two daughters, Mariano Rivera and two Steinbrenner heirs had left the safety of the dugout. First there had been large black clouds. Then distant lightning. Thunder chased the lightning, gaining on it, until the whole loud, wet mess settled atop the farewell party, and in the stands people slouched against the tempest rushed to safety. Alex’s little girls, Natasha and Ella, dressed in pretty outfits, their hair smushed against their heads, looked up and blinked against the driving downfall. Their dad smiled down with a look that offered, “How funny is this?”
Of the final thunderclap, he said, “I guess we went out with a bang.”
He slept in on Friday morning. Ate egg whites. Shortened his stretching routine due to the late hour. Into the extreme heat and humidity of New York, where on the streets it felt like you were breathing through an aquarium filter, he drove up Broadway, cut through Harlem. The 8 ½-by-11 sheet of paper on the clubhouse door said he would bat third, behind Jacoby Ellsbury and in front of Mark Teixeira, as the designated hitter. He’d hoped to play third base, but it hasn’t been one of those weeks for sentiments like hopes or gestures. He’d get what he got and then pack his stuff.
“Um, so far so good,” he said four hours before game time. “Slept pretty well.”
His mom and girls were flying in from Miami, he said. He looked forward to that.
“You never really prepare for this day,” he said. “But here it is.”
He stepped up from the dugout, threaded the gauntlet of photographers, took batting practice, then hugged the batting practice pitcher.
Joe Girardi leaned on the batting cage. He’s the guy whose job it was to get Alex Rodriguez from Sunday, when it was announced the Yankees would release him, to Friday, when they would do the releasing. He’s also the guy who believes in the standings and can read a calendar and has his own ideas about the lineup that was most likely to win a ballgame for the Yankees. He’d said things about letting the man with 696 home runs play, then backpedalled from that, thereby ticking off the man with 696 home runs, and then he’d said, “My job description does not entail a farewell tour,” something he might have thought about when he took a position as leader of aging, occasionally dignified superstars. The Yankees do these just about every summer. Girardi is, of course, in a tenuous position, and he wore the visage of a person whose life’s soul objective was to run, trudge, belly-crawl to Saturday.
“Who wants to be that guy?” he wondered.
So, yeah, no more than one start in Boston. No third base, until the end. How about a framed jersey and a summer storm instead?
This all seemed like the new girlfriend washing her boyfriend’s car so everything is tidy for him to go break up with his soon-to-be old girlfriend. Which I saw happen once. He didn’t come home that night. Things get complicated.
I sat Thursday night beside a self-identified Boston Red Sox fan at the Smith & Wollensky bar in Manhattan, the lady to my right cheering so hard through an Olympics semifinal, and being so disappointed in Michael Phelps, and finally granting it was OK she supposed for him to win just a silver, so that was exhausting, as she never did seem to grasp what a semifinal is, the Red Sox fan finally saying, “Honestly, I find it hard not to like A-Rod. He seems like a decent guy.”
It’s complicated. He hit, he won, he cheated again, he sued, he was punished, he returned, he hit again, he aged, it stayed complicated. It always will be, and even A-Rod – he hit 351 of his 696 home runs as a Yankee, won two of his three MVPs as a Yankee, won his only World Series as a Yankee – can see that. For a man with the clumsiest sense of where and when, he is utterly self-aware, usually after the fact, which is where it gets squishy.
“Hal [Steinbrenner, the club’s managing general partner] has given me an opportunity to stay involved with the organization,” he said. “With all my screw-ups and how badly I’ve acted, the fact that I’m walking out the door and Hal wants me as part of the family, that’s hitting 800 home runs for me.”
First, there was the matter of three or four more hours as a Yankee, those on the other side of the storm. He signed autographs near the right-field foul pole until the umpires emerged from a tunnel and approached home plate. When the Bleacher Creature role call from right field reached him last, the whole stadium joined in. He waved from the dugout rail. With family and friends watching from a suite with a ceiling, safe from further acts of God and/or karma, Rodriguez batted in the first inning against Chris Archer, the Tampa Bay Rays right-hander. Brett Gardner was at first base. Off a 96-mph fastball, A-Rod rifled a line drive into the right center-field gap. Gardner scored. Upon arriving at second base, A-Rod slapped his hands together, shrieked something along the lines of “[Heck] yeah!” and lifted his batting average from .199 to .203.
He’d said for six days his horizon was Friday night. Except there’s always a horizon and no one ever gets there, and maybe that’s what Saturday would be for, a mid-August Saturday when there’d be no baseball for him. The team that was his for 13 years, for 12 seasons (it’s complicated), the family that took him back at contractual gunpoint, that rejoiced in his 33 home runs a season ago, that gave him one last day in the three hole, goes on without him. They all do eventually, and then there’s the business of picking a new horizon.
“I’m gonna miss him,” Girardi, sobbing, said at the end of a long night, a long week, a long era. “I’m gonna miss the guy.”
Maybe A-Rod will play again, go be a DH, hunt left-handed pitching, get that 700th home run. Maybe he’s just had enough. He said he watched Gary Sanchez, the kid, have a big series in Boston and thought to himself, “I can’t do that anymore.”
So, that could be the end. He’ll wear more suits, raise those little girls of his, and stand pat on a career that was grand, that was wasteful, that was unforgettable. Just in case it all seems too far-fetched in hindsight, that it couldn’t really have gone that way, it’s just too bizarre, well, he’s got the dirt to prove it.