By JIM LITKE
Most guys in his place disappear for a while or else crumple up faster than Kleenex.
Not Alex Rodriguez.
Somehow he still shows up at the ballpark every day determined to take his licks, good and bad. That should count for something. So whatever else is said about A-Rod — and every indication is that there’s still plenty to come — at least acknowledge this much: The man has guts.
Just for fun, try and come up with another athlete who so many people are hoping will fail.
Rodriguez has collected more haters at the moment than anyone this side of Lance Armstrong. His sport wants him gone and so do most of its fans. The Yankees want out from under A-Rod’s contract, and even some number of his union brethren and teammates would pay good money for the privilege of hitting him with the door on the way out.
And every time Rodriguez opens his mouth, he only makes all those things worse.
He’s been portrayed as delusional and a serial liar who used PEDs to get where he is. He threw a cousin under a bus the first time he got caught, then reportedly had someone in his camp rat out a teammate — and conveniently — a rival to help cover his own tracks the second time. Even now, Rodriguez has yet another new mouthpiece offering new and familiarly cockamamie explanations for why all isn’t as bad as it seems. And maybe the best thing to be said about that is that he won’t have to work hard to convince his client.
With all the other developments in the saga, it’s easy to overlook that Rodriguez’s batting average is hovering around .320, and based on the admittedly scant evidence of his return a dozen games ago, his power numbers and OPS are lining up nicely with some of the more productive seasons of what’s been a very productive career. Even more impressive is the way Rodriguez handled himself Sunday night in Boston.
Red Sox starting pitcher Ryan Dempster set out to make a statement at A-Rod’s expense, throwing his first pitch on the wrong side of the batter’s box, then plunking him in the back with the last one. Dempster denied doing it on purpose, but more likely he was betting there wouldn’t be much in the way of reprisals from either A-Rod or his Yankee teammates — at least nothing of consequence.
He turned out to be wrong on both counts.
The benches cleared, Yankee manager Joe Girardi exploded and got tossed, Rodriguez homered off Dempster two at-bats later and his team won the game, managing to turn A-Rod into a sympathetic character — if only for one night. And even if all the talk in the New York clubhouse afterward about climbing back into the postseason race seemed a bit premature, well at least it provided his teammates a way to answer questions about A-Rod that didn’t include: “Should he even be on the field?”
Of course, that didn’t stop one reporter from asking A-Rod the same question about disgraced Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, and his answer was priceless: “I’m the wrong guy to be asking about suspensions,” he said, smiling slyly. “Holy mackerel!”
A-Rod is probably the wrong guy to be asking, too, about how he’s managed to come back from a serious injury at the advanced age of 38 and — at least for the time being — perform the way he did at 28, with the added burden of his unpopularity and ongoing legal proceedings weighing on his shoulders.
Rodriguez says it’s his faith, while his detractors suspect it’s the benefits of all that PED use. And most people believe that either way, failure is bound to come crashing down on him soon enough. A-Rod never quite flashed the bravado of Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Armstrong for that matter, to name a trio of the previous poster boys for all that’s bad about doping and sports, yet it’s hard to imagine his story ending any better than theirs did.
But just like them, it’s hard to see a guy defiantly thumb his nose at all the people booing and-or pursuing him and not marvel at whatever it is propping him up.
Reach Jim Litke at email@example.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.