- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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It may well have been the biggest crowd in the history of baseball ever to wait at the locker of a guy who didn't even play in the game.
The throng that gathered before the cubicle in which Alex Rodriguez dresses was bigger than the circle around Derek Jeter, much bigger than the circle around Raul Ibanez, one of the hitting stars of the game, bigger even than the pack that waited behind in the interview room for CC Sabathia, who only pitched the Yankees into the American League Championship Series.
That's how big A-Rod is even in absentia, even in decline, even in disuse.
His fall has been almost imperceptibly gradual over the past three seasons, and at the same time shockingly sudden over the past three days.
He went from the starting third baseman and middle-of-the-batting-order force on Wednesday to a $32 million bench player on Friday.
And in between, he became the guy you pinch-hit for with the game on the line on two consecutive nights. One night it worked like magic, when Ibanez tied Game 3 in the ninth inning with one home run and won it three innings later with another, both coming in at-bats that would have belonged to Alex Rodriguez.
The next night, it didn't work at all when Eric Chavez lined out to third in the 13th inning of Game 4, a game the Yankees lost.
And in Friday's Game 5, a game that meant everything for the New York Yankees, when the occasion arose in which the situation could have been reversed -- sixth inning, Yankees leading 2-0, runners on first and second with two out, Ibanez scheduled to hit and Buck Showalter just daring Joe Girardi to send up A-Rod by replacing his right-handed starter, Jason Hammel, with lefty Troy Patton – Girardi opted not to do a thing.
Ibanez struck out and the threat died there. But since the game ended with the Yankees winning, 3-1, and heading now into the first game of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night, there was no cause to second-guess the non-move or to grill the Yankees manager on how he could allow his team to lose a playoff series with the fifth-leading home run hitter in baseball history sitting on the bench.
"They would have brought in a righty at that point, so you don't want to waste your bullets," Girardi said. "So I decided to leave it."
Time was when it wouldn't have mattered who was throwing the baseball when it came Alex Rodriguez's turn to hit, but that now seems like a long time ago.
Instead, his role in the Yankees biggest victory of the year was that of a cheerleader. "He was out there pulling for everyone, like everyone on our team does," Jeter said. "We wanted to win this game. We wanted to move on to the next series, and he was out there cheering like everyone else."
He took part, briefly, in the champagne celebration in the clubhouse and then he disappeared, and it was probably just as well that he never returned to his locker; the questions would have been awkward at best, embarrassing at worst.
What was it like to sit on the bench watching your teammates win the most important game of the season without you?
Did you think Joe might send you up for Raul in the sixth? What went through your mind when he didn't?
Do you think you'll play in Game 1 tomorrow?
It would have been painful, and maybe ugly.
Alex Rodriguez had left Yankee Stadium on Thursday night thinking he would be in Friday's lineup; after all, it had been 17 years since the last time he was left out of the starting lineup for a playoff game that he was eligible to play in, and at the time he was a 20-year-old Seattle Mariner.
And it took all the self-control he could muster before the game to try to put a brave face on what must have been a mortifying turn of events for him.
"Well, obviously I'm not happy, and obviously disappointed," he said. "You want to be in there in the worst way. But I keep telling you guys this is not a story about one person, it's about a team and we have some unfinished business today. Don't assume you've heard the last from us, or me. We're ready to roll."
But the Yankees rolled without him and now, the possibility looms that he has started his last game in the 2012 postseason; with the Tigers likely to start nothing but right-handers in the ALCS, Girardi may well decide to start the left-handed hitting Chavez at third and keep A-Rod as the bullet in the chamber that he never actually fires.
And the question that hangs in the air is simply this: Can the Yankees advance any further into October with a lineup minus Alex Rodriguez, even the ever-diminishing version of him that we have seen over the past three seasons?
The numbers say the Yankees are a better team with A-Rod in the lineup, and a lesser team without him. This season, they were 73-46 in games he started and 22-21 in games he did not.
And when he was out for six weeks with a broken hand, Girardi often pointed to his absence as the reason why the Yankees hitters were struggling, particularly against left-handed pitching.
And yet, it took just three poor postseason games for Girardi to decide that of all the pieces in his carefully-constructed lineup -- he claims to spend a minimum of an hour a day deciding who will hit where -- Alex Rodriguez was the one replaceable part.
Given the choice before Game 4 of benching Curtis Granderson, who was batting .063 with nine strikeouts in 16 at-bats, moving Ichiro Suzuki to center and inserting the hot-hitting Ibanez into left, Girardi chose to sit A-Rod.
When I asked him to explain his reasoning before the game, he said that to remove Granderson from the lineup would leave him without a left-handed hitting DH.
What he really meant was, he has determined that Alex Rodriguez was not going to play. Like the Ibanez move in Game 3, Girardi's gut was spot on -- Granderson finally got off the schneid with a single in the fifth and a home run in the seventh that provided a vital insurance run.
Although the offensive production was anemic once again by Yankees standards, just five hits and three runs, the result seemed to indicate that the Yankees can indeed win a series without Alex Rodriguez.
And the possibility looms that they will try to win the next one without him as well.
"You can't think about that now," Girardi had said before the game when asked if he thought benching A-Rod would affect their future relationship, which could have another five years to run. "You got to think about winning a game. This is not June. This is October."
He could very well give the same answer before the start of Game 1 Saturday night.
"The one thing that a player always has a chance to do is change history or what people think about them," Girardi said. "That's one thing I think a player can always do. God willing, we move on and he has a big rest of the playoff series, then I think people forget about that."
Realistically, however, it seems unlikely that we will be gathering around A-Rod's locker any day soon after a game in which he goes, say, 2-for-4 with a home run to help win a playoff game.
Ibanez, whose fifth-inning RBI single drove in the Yankees' second run of the game, seemed uncomfortable when asked by the small media gathering at his locker if there was any awkwardness in replacing A-Rod in the Yankees' lineup.
"Uh, no," he said. "We're all in this together. Alex is an unbelievable teammate and a great player. He's been one of the best teammates I've ever had and he's going to be huge for us during this postseason, I really believe that."
That becomes harder and harder to believe as we head deeper into October and the only sign of Alex Rodriguez is an empty locker with a huge crowd around it, waiting to hear from a player who didn't see a single pitch.
2hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com