BALTIMORE – By the terms of his contract, Alex Rodriguez(notes) has nine years to repair his image, and even that might not be enough. The scale of likely outcomes may still be tilted more toward self-immolation than sweet redemption, based on the arc of A-Rod's autobiography so far.
But it took just one swing to determine it should be compelling theater regardless how it turns out.
Rodriguez, whose moments on the big stage have been fraught with more pratfalls than high drama, returned in grand fashion Friday night, hitting the first pitch he saw this season for a three-run home run.
"Look, I've made a lot of mistakes in my career,'' Rodriguez said before the game, when asked if he felt he could clear his name. "They've been well-documented. I think I've paid my price. I'm really excited about the present and the future. They're the only things I can control from here on out.''
A couple hours later, no sooner had giant Styrofoam syringes sprouted in the seats behind home plate than A-Rod was turning on a 97 mph fastball from Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie(notes) and planting the ball a dozen rows into the left-field bleachers.
"It was a dream,'' Rodriguez said.
The Yankee fans – and there were plenty among the crowd of 36,926 who'd made the trip down the Jersey Turnpike – rose to their feet. Outfielder Nick Swisher(notes), who was waiting in front of the New York Yankees dugout, nearly sent Rodriguez back to the disabled list with an exuberant high five. Manny Pacquiao didn't hit Ricky Hatton any harder than Swisher walloped Rodriguez.
"Amazing, perfect, storybook, awesome,'' Swisher said. "Any time you got a guy like Guthrie out there, it feels like he's throwing salt pellets. To square one up on the first pitch you see is pretty exciting.''
Swisher started to laugh. "Damn, who'd a thought that would happen, you know what I mean? Think about that. I don't mean I didn't think [so], because anything's possible – Kevin Garnett said that.''
And so the rehabilitation began, with a 4-0 win in which Rodriguez hot-wired the first inning and CC Sabathia(notes) did the rest, turning in a complete-game four-hitter in which he struck out eight, including the meat of the Orioles order – Adam Jones(notes), Nick Markakis(notes) and Melvin Mora(notes) – to end the game. It was by far Sabathia's best night in pinstripes.
For one night, at least, the clouds parted for Rodriguez, in a week that began with the release of a book, “A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez,” by Selena Roberts, the Sports Illustrated writer whose reporting had uncovered Rodriguez's name on the list of 104 players who had tested positive for steroids in 2003. The book went further. Roberts, relying heavily on anonymous sources, wrote that Rodriguez used steroids in high school and performance-enhancing substances with the Yankees. She also quoted anonymous teammates in Texas as saying Rodriguez tipped friends on opposing teams about what pitches were coming, and they would do the same for him.
"Look, anything that has to do with that book, my answer is going to be the same – I'm not answering anything to do with that book,'' Rodriguez said in a pregame media session held in the visitors' dugout.
"Forget about the book. The answer is no. I'm not talking anything more about that book.''
Joel Sherman of the New York Post wasn't going to let Rodriguez off that easily. The book aside, Sherman asked, did you take steroids in high school?
"The answer is no,'' Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez arrived here minus his usual entourage of handlers, lawyers and celebrity image-makers. He was here, he said, with his brother, Joe Dunand, and a childhood friend from Miami, Guillermo Socarras. That was by design, he said, a realization that introducing a little simplicity into his life might be wise. He talked about a desire not only to improve as a ballplayer, but as a person.
It wasn't quite sackcloth and ashes, but it was a long way from kissing your own image in the mirror.
"The more you look in the mirror,'' he said without a trace of irony, "you realize that it's time to grow up, it's time to play baseball again. I loved the way I did things in 2007 (when he won his third MVP award). Things in 2008, I got away from my 2007 plan. I have no one to blame but myself. Now in 2009, I have a chance to make things right. I have nine more years to make my daughters proud of me.''
Rodriguez had missed the Yankees' first 28 games after undergoing hip surgery March 9. The Yankees had projected a mid-May return; Rodriguez made it back almost two months to the day after surgery. No one is prepared to say that Rodriguez, who struck out twice and grounded out in his last three at-bats, is ready to play every day. A-Rod, who dived for the first ground ball hit his way, said he is eager to see how he feels when he wakes up in the morning. In a week to 10 days, he said, he should have a pretty good gauge on his capacity to play.
But turning on Guthrie's fastball, he said, is something he couldn't have done in the final two months of 2008, and it was out of the question this spring, which is why he opted for surgery.
Rodriguez's return could not have come at a better time for the Yankees, who had lost their previous five games, their longest losing streak in Joe Girardi's tenure as manager. Fans chanted "We want Torre" this week in Yankee Stadium and booed regal closer Mariano Rivera(notes) after he gave up back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career in a loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
Mark Teixeira(notes), the $180 million import, is barely batting his contract, his average falling to .192 after going hitless in three at-bats Friday. Catcher Jorge Posada(notes) is on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring, and he was joined there Friday by backup Jose Molina(notes), who strained his left quadriceps the night before.
And perhaps most aggravating of all – or at least would have been if the new Boss was the same as the old Boss – was losing all five early season meetings with the Boston Red Sox, including two excruciating, drawn-out affairs early this week in the Bronx.
"We needed this bad,'' Girardi said.
"There was just a different aura today,'' Swisher said. "I think we knew we had one of our boys coming back, and it brought us up to the next level. Beautiful.''
This is Swisher's first season in a Yankee uniform, so he has not been party to the turmoil of the previous A-Rod years. But he insists that the team is fully behind Rodriguez, which would be a dramatic departure from his first five seasons in pinstripes, according to no less an authority than former Yankee manager Joe Torre, who painted a contentious picture in his own book.
Swisher wasn't inclined for literary discourse.
"Ain't nobody going to read that book – write that down,'' Swisher said when someone mentioned the Roberts book. "This is the one great thing about this team: This is a united front, and everybody's got everybody's back, and we're going to defend him all the way.''
"The one thing you've got to guard against,'' he said, "is just because Alex is back, that doesn't mean everything's fine. Everybody else has to do their job. He's only one person. It's not like everything is going to be fine and dandy.''
But for one night, it certainly looked that way. A-Rod slugged, CC pitched and the Yankees won. The winning, Rodriguez said, is what will determine whether New York embraces him again or not.
"I'm used to this,'' he said. "It seems like I'm always in a situation. But I think the one unique thing is, we need to win. That's the only thing that matters, regardless of what I do. If we don't win and I do great, it doesn't matter. If I stink and we win, that's the only thing that matters. We have to win.''
Is it really as uncomplicated as that? Win and all is forgiven? We're about to find out.