Commentary

New adventures of old Alex

Rodriguez is getting up there in age, but he hopes he can recapture old magic

Updated: April 20, 2012, 11:47 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Alex Rodriguez could have been the official greeter at this big birthday bash, the active two-time champ who welcomed back a legion of Fenway Park greats. This is assuming, of course, the Boston Red Sox still would have seized their ghostbusting titles had their trade for A-Rod gone through.

As it turned out, Rodriguez did help the Red Sox win it all for the first time since 1918. "I still lose sleep over 2004," he admitted this past fall after his New York Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs on -- what else? -- an A-Rod whiff.

Rodriguez was the pained face of that epic American League Championship Series collapse in '04, just as he was the pained face of last year's first-round loss to Detroit and just about every meaningful Yankees failure in between.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Michael DwyerAlex Rodriguez ripped his 631st career homer to move past Ken Griffey Jr. on the all-time list.

That's OK. A-Rod has 2009. How many millions would LeBron James pay right now for his own 2009?

Rodriguez was an explosive offensive force on the way to his one and only parade, and he believes he can be that player again. Few around the Yankees share that belief. Over the past two years, they've seen nights when the slugger, who turns 37 in July, has looked older than that Highlanders uniform he wore Friday.

Limb by limb, joint by joint, his once-PED-fueled body has appeared to be coming undone. The hip, the shoulder, the knee, the thumb -- enough injuries to challenge your memory on which required surgery and which did not.

The Yankees can't afford for Rodriguez to be that kind of diminished athlete, not when they have him signed for absurd wages over six seasons -- six -- including this one. They need him to play 140 or more games, which he hasn't done since 2007, and they need him to swing the bat like he did as the designated hitter at Fenway, where he helped turn the old ballyard's centennial celebration into an unwelcome showcase for Yankees might.

"They put on a great show," Rodriguez said of the pregame ceremony, "but the game was good, too."

The Yankees were good for five homers in the 6-2 victory, two from Eric Chavez and No. 631 from the DH, Rodriguez, who passed former teammate Ken Griffey Jr. on the all-time list and started taking aim at the game's greatest living player, Willie Mays, sitting and waiting in the 4-hole with 660.

"The coolest thing about our situation here," Rodriguez said, "is that every game, every swing, means something to our team, and we have much bigger goals around here than trying to chase history or chase record books.

"But obviously, when you talk about a name like Willie Mays when the time comes, that's a pretty great name."

Rodriguez will go down as a pretty great name, too, but also as a name who should have been greater. He cheated his own legacy by using performance-enhancing drugs, a decision he'll take to his grave.

A-Rod can't do anything about his soiled past. He can only send as many baseballs into orbit as possible from here through 2017 and hope historians cut him a little slack.

Toward that end, Rodriguez blasted his second homer of the season to lead off the fifth Friday, a first-pitch shot off Clay Buchholz that sailed high over the great green wall in left. It was A-Rod's punctuation mark on a bigger swing in the first, after Dustin Pedroia, of all people, went Luis Castillo on a Derek Jeter popup. Rodriguez's single to center gave the Yankees and Ivan Nova a lead they wouldn't surrender.

"It's a nice day," Reggie Jackson would say later, "but I don't know if it makes the season for Alex. We're all sitting here waiting for Alex and [Mark Teixeira] and [Robinson Cano], and once one of them starts, you figure the other guys will catch on.

"Hopefully there's a little breakout here with Alex, and you'll start to see the ball leave his bat in a way that makes you go, 'Wow.'"

Rodriguez has always carried a lot of wow to the plate. But he played in only 99 games last year, when his failing body allowed him a mere 16 homers and 62 RBIs. A-Rod promised to "come back with a vengeance," to come back as a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy, and he sought counsel on different ways to heal his body from stars in a different sport.

Kobe Bryant referred him to a blood-spinning Dr. Feelgood in Germany, and Grant Hill sold him on his physical therapist with the Phoenix Suns. A-Rod showed up this spring a new man, ready to fight all comers for one of his most prized possessions -- the cleanup spot.

"I take enormous pride in hitting fourth," he would say. "I'm going to make it as difficult as possible for Joe [Girardi] to take me out of that position."

Rodriguez didn't make it difficult enough. Girardi demoted him to the 3-hole against righties, replacing A-Rod with the team's most dangerous hitter, Cano. It was hardly Joe Torre batting Rodriguez eighth in that bygone division series against the Detroit Tigers, but it had to hurt all the same.

"No, I have several hundreds of games I'm sure, maybe thousands of games hitting in the 3-spot," said A-Rod, who has batted third in 731 games. "We have a great lineup one through nine. I mean, the luxury to have a guy like Chavez hitting in the eighth slot and come up with two mammoth home runs, that tells you a little bit about our depth."

And their ability to make Bobby Valentine's Red Sox look every bit as bad as their record (4-9) indicates.

Valentine had some good training camp fun at the expense of A-Rod and Jeter, but nobody on the Boston side -- especially the new mananger -- was laughing when Fenway loosed a "We want Tito" chant in the ninth, a tribute to Valentine's predecessor, Terry Francona (now an ESPN analyst).

From behind dark sunglasses, Bobby V sat on the dugout bench and watched without expression as the second-most polarizing figure in the house, A-Rod, trotted around the bases in the fifth.

This could have been Rodriguez's house, and party, had things worked out differently in 2004, when Boston lost the slugger to the Yankees in the offseason before paying them back with interest in the postseason.

That was then; this is now. Rodriguez might still lose sleep over blowing a 3-0 ALCS lead to the Red Sox eight years ago, but he was scheduled to sleep like a baby Friday night after blasting past Griffey and beginning his assault on Mays.

"It means I'm getting older," A-Rod said, "that's for sure."

The Yankees already knew Rodriguez was getting older. Now they need him to get better.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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