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Monday, August 5, 2013
A-Rod circus flops

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- As circuses go, this wasn't exactly the big top.

Sure, there was a bear on a unicycle, but his question to Joe Girardi was trifling at best. And I never saw that "pink elephant in the room" that Alex Rodriguez keeps mentioning.

Alex Rodriguez
After taking questions from a horde of reporters, Alex Rodriguez signed autographs for fans at U.S. Cellular Field before Monday's game.
We were promised a freak show for "A-Rod Monday" and all I got were a bunch of reporters standing around a clubhouse. Close enough, I guess.

For all the build-up, all the threats of lifetime bans, this is what happened Monday: An unpopular Yankee with a dumb nickname played baseball.

After the official suspensions from Major League Baseball came down Monday afternoon for the Biogenesis scandal, Rodriguez took some questions, he got booed, he got a hit. I presume he went back and slept in a hotel bed, but this is A-Rod. He might hang from a ceiling in zero gravity under a centaur painting. Who knows?

In the end, a fifth-place team (the Chicago White Sox) beat a fourth-place team (the New York Yankees) 8-1.

The much-feared New York media didn't tear Rodriguez apart, rhetorically or physically. And Rodriguez didn't commit any major gaffes. It was a pretty cordial news conference. I've seen much worse after a Bears victory.

Rodriguez, the only one of the Biogenesis offenders who is appealing his harsh sentence, showed emotion, seemed contrite and brushed off the serious stuff for a later date that will probably never come.

He has done this before. No one buys his act, and I have a hard time figuring out who really cares anymore. You almost have to feign hatred of the guy. Baseball had a serious performance-enhancing drug "problem" (and I'm using air quotes there for a reason) and is now policing players with an authoritarian bent. You might like seeing the A-Rods of the world brought to heel. The fans who showed up to boo him sure did.

The fans jeered Rodriguez something fierce every time he batted, but it seemed forced as if it were something they knew they had to do. There were a few desultory signs, some lame insults. Hopefully, the home fans are saving their vitriol for SoxFest.

What did I expect, a weeping Rodriguez spilling his secrets to a group of reporters? A crying Jerry Reinsdorf shaming him from the Scout Seats? "Say it ain't so, Schmoe."

Rodriguez, a misfit now more than ever, is alone in a group as supposedly "clean" baseball players race to impugn "dirty" ones. I don't envy him, that's for sure.

But I'll give Rodriguez this, he was as comfortable as could be while facing a room full of people who believe he's a cheat, a liar and a weirdo. He's great at humanizing himself in front of a chorus of camera shutters.

"I'm thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to put on a uniform again," he said before the game in a 15-minute pseudo-conversation with reporters in which he described this situation as "fighting for my life."

After his news conference, Rodriguez signed autographs next to the Yankees' dugout. A little later, he ran by himself into the outfield, soaking in the (mostly negative) attention.

"I feel like I was 18 years old back in Fenway in 1994 when I went in to face the Red Sox for the very first time, and it's been 20 years," he said before the game.

As his ex-girlfriend sang, he's "Like a Baseball Virgin."

Rodriguez said his legal team has seen MLB's evidence against him in the Biogenesis case and he refused, as one would expect, to say he's innocent or guilty. If he's guilty, he knows he might not have much time left in the majors. And if the suspension stands, he can forget about the Hall of Fame, which is probably already a stretch.

His whole career, once cherished for its historical potential, is fully in question, and you can see by the Cooperstown voting patterns, no one's racing to reward these so-called cheaters.

With that in mind, when his career is done, Rodriguez will fade away into anonymity. I don't see him getting a second chance, like Mark McGwire did. He'll be a cautionary tale for future stars.

"We like to compete, but compete clean," new Yankee Alfonso Soriano said. "That's part of the game. Compete clean and see what happens. ... God gave you the talent, so don't try to be a super hero or something like that. Just play with the talent God gave you and see what happens."

Too bad Rodriguez didn't hear that message 10 years ago.

This doesn't seem like the ending he was shooting for all those years. Rodriguez's standing in baseball is a form of punishment more lasting than the 211-game suspension he's appealing.

Until the verdict is in, he'll have to deal with booing fans, an impending messy legal fight with baseball, and sassy tabloid covers. The booing fans for sure.

The Sox had a walk-up crowd of "more than 3,200," more than the usual crowd clamoring to see Casper Wells. I sat down there for the first two innings, but I don't know what I expected to see or hear. It was just fans booing an out-of-town athlete. It happens to every Yankee.

And this is how it will go in every park for the first game of every series he plays, probably even Yankee Stadium to a degree, as Rodriguez awaits his appeal of the year-plus suspension for being implicated in this morass. He'll get booed. Big deal.

The White Sox had to be secretly thrilled he was coming to town. They came into the game on a 10-game losing streak and with the second-worst record in baseball. They needed to deflect their fans' ire.

"I think we're the only team in the league that could benefit from this," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said.

Maybe this is his penance. Rodriguez will be a boon to baseball by drawing slightly larger crowds. Which I guess would make this a traveling carnival, rather than a circus.

I'm not sure how much fans really care here. The Biogenesis scandal hasn't received a great deal of attention in Chicago, because no local players were implicated and it has nothing to do with Marc Trestman's offense or Derrick Rose's knee. (If anyone at Biogenesis can check out Derrick's knee, let us know. We won't tell.)

No, our teams are too busy struggling to be juicing.

As White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said before the game, "You've seen this team play recently. I've got 99 problems, and A-Rod ain't one of them."

Rick Hova, everyone.

While the White Sox have been unwatchable and the Cubs predictably bad, there are some great non-Biogenesis stories in baseball. Just ask Rodriguez, who seemed to be campaigning for a George Will-like first fan position before the game.

"I hope we have one moment with this appeal process to talk about the greatest game in the world, to take a little bit of a timeout from this and give the fans of baseball an opportunity to focus on all of the great stories that are happening in baseball right now," he said. "Above all, I'm a huge baseball fan and I hope we can put a light on a lot of this. Hopefully today we can take a timeout, take a deep breath and focus on these great baseball stories."

If Rodriguez said that wearing an Andrew McCutchen shirsey, maybe I'd be convinced that he cares.

He's right, though. There are great stories in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates chief among them. But a hero's fall trumps them right now. In October, it will be different. But this is August.

As for me, I'm not much for demonizing a guy for taking pills or shots. There are worse scoundrels in sports, worse problems in life. Rodriguez is a phony, sure, and an easy mark for the whole "Steroids Era."

But while everyone will remember how Rodriguez went down (twice), this event means little in the long run. Players will try to cheat to get an edge. Some will succeed in private, while others get caught in prime time. And baseball fans will still love baseball.

"I think it's important players realize you need to do it the right way," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "People have asked me, is this a good day or a bad day in baseball. I think it's both."

Girardi is right. It was a good day and a bad day. And now it's over. Time to move on.