NEW YORK – Maybe this is the year bright lights inspire Alex Rodriguez instead of sending him to the never-never land where his wooden baseball bat turns flaccid.
A set of shining bulbs certainly did the job Wednesday.
At 5:30 p.m., when his New York Yankees teammates were finishing up batting practice, Rodriguez found himself inside an MRI tube, an experience best described as getting a live tour of what a hot dog must feel as it's stuffed into its casing. Add in the machine emitting ear-splitting noise and light bulbs with a wattage of, oh, ∞ or so, and it's not exactly Gipper-level motivation material.
Which makes Rodriguez's performance Wednesday night against the Seattle Mariners all the more special, perhaps the ultimate moment in a season full of them.
Hobbled by a right ankle sprain, Rodriguez sweet-talked his way back into the lineup after manager Joe Torre had given him the night off, tied the game with a home run to lead off the seventh inning and followed later in the same inning with a two-run shot, the chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry on top of the Yankees' 10-2 victory that put them three games ahead of the Mariners in the American League wild-card race.
"If it was April or May, I probably would've taken the day, no question," Rodriguez said. "But every game is so important.
"I've played for 13 years. Any of us go in that MRI machine for an hour, and who knows what the hell that thing is going to say? I knew I felt good enough to play."
Now, Rodriguez admitted he played at only 60 percent healed, so perhaps his judgment was a tad askew. Or maybe he just understands that A-Rod at D-minus level is still better than everyone else at A-plus.
The home runs were Nos. 47 and 48 on the season and Nos. 511 and 512 for his career. He passed Mel Ott on the all-time list and tied Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews for 17th. The way Rodriguez piles up numbers, he makes Hall of Famers, all-time greats, look like also-rans. Next are Willie McCovey and Ted Williams at 521, a number certainly within reach during the 22 games remaining on the Yankees' schedule.
Or, better yet, 22 games left to appreciate Rodriguez's season that will end with his third AL MVP award. This could be his best yet, in terms of runs, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and, if he hits 10 more, home runs. What could have descended into a season about washed-out-stripper chatter, real-Yankee-or-not jibber-jabber, sleepovers-with-Derek Jeter nonsense has instead crested into an honest-to-goodness appreciation of baseball greatness.
"His whole career is something special," said Torre, who met with Rodriguez after he returned from the hospital to check his status, then poked his head in the training room one more time just to make sure he was well enough to DH. "The numbers he's put up at his age. How he takes care himself. Sometimes how important this game is to him gets in the way. He feels he needs to do so much.
"Last year, unfortunately, it worked against him. Anything that happened, or things that he didn't do, it was all about him."
It still is, no matter what else the Yankees offer. Rookie Joba Chamberlain stretched his career-starting scoreless streak to 12 1/3 innings and picked up his first victory. New York managed 10 runs on only seven hits. Yankee Stadium shook, its foundation quaking at the scary thought of 52,538 New Yorkers opening their mouths simultaneously.
And what mattered? A-Rod, of course, and the way he wrote the obituary for the team that drafted him. In that seventh inning, Mariners manager John McLaren emptied his bullpen. That is not a figurative statement. After pulling starter Jarrod Washburn, who yielded Rodriguez's first home run, he made four more pitching changes. By the end of the inning, the Mariners had needed Washburn, George Sherrill, Sean Green, Eric O'Flaherty, Brandon Morrow and Rick White to record three outs.
The Mariners are cooked. They have lost 11 of 12 and look beaten down. The Yankees, on the other hand, are resurrected and riding Rodriguez.
"I played with some special players," Torre said. "I played with Aaron and Mathews, played against Banks. The numbers he's putting up – I mean, it dwarfs anything players in the past have done, as far as numbers. Now, back in those days, there were eight teams in each league. The pitching was better. So you have to take that into account.
"It's ridiculous. …How many runs scored does Alex have? Hank Aaron used to make an issue of wanting to score 100 runs. That was important for him. He knew he was going to knock in 100. But scoring 100 was a stat that he really concentrated on."
Rodriguez has scored 127. And has 134 RBIs. And it's not just Torre, either, who Rodriguez confounds with his accomplishments.
"I didn't even realize it was two in one inning," Jeter said. "The inning was so long, I didn't realize it."
Jeter stood on the third-base line during the second home run. On a 2-1 pitch from rookie Brandon Morrow, Rodriguez stroked a laser over the left-field fence. Jeter trotted down toward home plate and clapped. Not a polite clap, but an emphatic one – one that said however much strife might exist between the two, Jeter admires what Rodriguez can do with a bat.
Rodriguez rounded the bases, a sponge for cheers. His homers bookended one of the great Yankee innings of the season, and with Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera warming up, this lead would not disappear. As he neared home, Rodriguez trotted with a light limp, until he arrived at the plate, where he stomped his right foot.
He was just fine. The lights, in fact, felt great.