KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They will fete him with handshakes and hugs, because that's how it works with Alex Rodriguez and his New York Yankees teammates. No matter how much they revile him personally – hey, the guy admitted himself that most people don't like him – they stand by him in public.
Partially because he is, steroids or not, the right-handed bat they need in the middle of their lineup. Also because the Yankees are comprised of the sorts of players – almost all good eggs – who embody the selflessness Rodriguez consistently flouts.
Were this the Oakland or Minnesota or Tampa Bay clubhouse, Rodriguez would arrive today to a life-sized picture of himself putting the moves on a mirror with his own reflection, a literal and figurative Fathead. Instead, he'll greet the businesslike Yankees, ever aware of the scrutiny that chases him like a lime wedge does a tequila shot, for the first time since the surgery 4 ½ weeks ago to repair a torn labrum in his right hip. Rodriguez's return to the Tampa area, where he'll start the baseball portion of his rehabilitation, and the Yankees' starting a series against the Rays is simply coincidence, though it does allow for some reflection on life without A-Rod.
Which, it turns out, is pretty much how the Yankees figured.
"We miss him," pitcher Joba Chamberlain said.
"We miss him a lot," second baseman Robinson Cano said.
"Of course we miss him," outfielder Nick Swisher said.
And so on.
Absence, apparently, makes the heart grow big using steroids. Wait. That's not how it goes. Absence makes the heart grow Madonna? Hmmm. OK, last try. Absence makes the heart grow tolerant of a narcissist who does enough good during games to warrant what he does away from them.
Yeah. That about covers it. The A-Rod Love-In is and always will be a product of him as a player and not a person, and his teammates do a better job of separating those things than the fan who pays exorbitant money for a ticket and simply wishes every Yankee could be Derek Jeter.
Both delude themselves, the Yankees who believe – or at least say – that A-Rod's off-field chicanery affects neither him nor them and the fans who castigate Rodriguez in spite of his performance. The first point is indefensible, and Yankees players continue to spout it like wind-up dolls. At least the second finds an ally in October.
Though let's be real: For all the good the Yankees found in A-Rod's vacation, with nobody asking questions about Yuri Sucart or Angel Presinal or Madonna or mirror makeout sessions, and with the team actually bonding in a fashion three Yankees players said simply would not have happened with A-Rod around, and with the respite preceding another impending period of insanity, the release of Selena Roberts' biography on Rodriguez – all that combined still isn't enough to make up the difference between Rodriguez and his replacement at third base, Cody Ransom.
There is a reason Ransom, 33, has never finished a major-league season with more than 68 at-bats. He is not very good. Ransom is 1 for 20 this season. Of the 218 players averaging at least three at-bats per game, Ransom's .050 batting average ranks 216th.
In Rodriguez's worst six-game stretch last season, he went 2-for-20 – and both were home runs. Saying he's better than Ransom is like saying chocolate is better than chitlins.
"He's not replaceable," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You just keep hoping you play very good baseball until he gets here. Because we know we're going to get him back."
No one knows when. Rodriguez's doctor reported quicker-than-expected progress. The target remains May 15, though at the current pace it should be sooner. Unless A-Rod experiences a setback, which could keep him out well past May.
"It's going to be nice to see him back," Cano said, "but not that nice, because I'd rather see him play."
All of this amounts to a tease, a reminder of the blessing and the curse of Rodriguez. Even though the Yankees play the defending American League champion, it amounts to at best the fifth-most-important going-on of the day, behind A-Rod, A-Rod again, $180 million man Mark Teixeira's bothersome wrist (which could make a case for top billing any other time, as you see what a wrist injury did last year to David Ortiz) and, sure, A-Rod once more, for posterity.
Whether Rodriguez pulls a quick stop-and-chat or busts out the full huckster shtick, Day-Glo teeth and all, and turns an insignificant update into a production is likely an indicator of how he'll handle himself going forward. Already this spring has been a lesson in awful crisis management. Note to future juicers: Don't blame it on an unnamed cousin, don't get caught fooling around with a notorious madam and, for everyone's sake, please don't go all Blue Steel for a magazine photo shoot. Rodriguez couldn't resist, ever parched he is in his thirst for validation. Asking him to stick to baseball and leave the tabloid acrobatics to those equipped to handle them seems too much at this point.
So following Monday's visit, the Yankees will get back to business in the toughest of divisions and Rodriguez will continue swinging a real bat instead of a broomstick, two trains on the track, headed toward each other, bound to meet again in the only fashion they ever do with Rodriguez.
A big, messy wreck.