On verge of history, A-Rod is stuck in neutral

Alex Rodriguez was parked on the New York Yankees’ bench at the start of Friday night’s game against
The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez hits an RBI single during the ninth inning Friday against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.
The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez hits an RBI single during the ninth inning Friday against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.

Alex Rodriguez was parked on the New York Yankees’ bench at the start of Friday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, his station when the Yankees play in a National League park and there is no room in the lineup for someone who can serve only as a designated hitter.

If he is marooned there this weekend as a consequence of the schedule, it is hard to say the Yankees will be missing much.

This season was set up to be a victory lap for Rodriguez, who returned last season from a performance-enhancing-drug suspension by hitting a team-leading 33 home runs, driving in 86 runs and comporting himself as a humble elder who was not afraid to laugh at himself as he turned 40.

Rodriguez began this season with 687 home runs, within striking distance of the 714 hit by the most hallowed Yankee of them all, Babe Ruth. And given Rodriguez’s career-long flair for the dramatic — he tied Willie Mays’ mark of 660 in the caldron of Fenway Park and celebrated his 3,000th career hit with a home run at Yankee Stadium — who wouldn’t have expected something theatrical this season?

If he could reach Ruth, it would force the Yankees to revisit the question of whether they would pay Rodriguez another of the $6 million marketing bonuses they agreed to before he was twice forced to acknowledge his steroid use. Catching Ruth would also raise the possibility of reaching Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs and Barry Bonds’ record 762.

At the moment, those seem as far off as Pluto.

Rodriguez, who through Friday is hitting .223 with eight home runs and 28 runs batted in, sandwiched around three weeks on the disabled list, has struggled so mightily that he was recently benched against right-handed pitchers because the Yankees, desperate to stay within striking distance of a playoff berth, were simply better with Carlos Beltran as the designated hitter and Aaron Hicks in right field.

Rodriguez was afforded a reprieve when Beltran felt his hamstring grab Tuesday, so he was back in the lineup Wednesday and Thursday, when he managed a pair of singles. He delivered a pinch-hit single Friday night, when the Yankees scored four runs in the ninth but fell short in a 7-6 loss to San Diego.

“It just seems, at times, he’s in between the fastball and breaking ball,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before Friday’s game. “He seems to chase more this year than he did last year.”

Rodriguez went about his usual routine Friday, working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell in the batting cage, stinging line drive after line drive during batting practice and then heading down the left-field line, where he dutifully signed autographs for about 10 minutes.

After the game, he struck the same defiant tone he had several days earlier, when he promised, “You haven’t heard the last of me.”

“I love to play. I love the challenge,” Rodriguez said Friday night. “It’s not the first time that people said he can’t do this or can’t do that. I’m going to continue to work my [butt] off day in and day out. I think I’m going to do a lot of damage, and look, there’s no question our team is best when I’m in the middle of the lineup producing.”

There is some question, though, whether Rodriguez can still be that player. He can still stir a crowd, as he did when a sold-out Petco Park, about half filled with Yankees fans, rose to its feet when Rodriguez strode to the plate. They roared when he drove an outside pitch through the inviting gap between first and second.

(His penchant for usurping story lines arose Friday. If the Yankees had tied the score — the game ended with the tying run at third — Rodriguez would have had to play third base, something he has not done in more than a year.)

As Rodriguez nears his 41st birthday at the end of the month, it may be best to view his 2015 season as the outlier. It was the only year since 2010 that Rodriguez was healthy and as productive as a No. 3 hitter ought to be.

This season is more in line with what happens to baseball’s best sluggers at the end of their careers.

The top seven career home run hitters played into their 40s, and only Bonds aged well, hitting .276 with 28 home runs and an otherworldly 1.045 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his final season, though who knows how much he owed to chemical enhancements.

By the time they reached their final seasons, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome were shells of their former selves. None hit more than 10 home runs in his last year, nor did any of them play more than 88 games.

Mays left with the enduring image of him stumbling around in center field during the 1973 World Series at age 42.

“Your body starts to deteriorate, and that’s the hard part about being an athlete,” Girardi said. “You have to make adjustments to continue to play at a high level.”

Rodriguez still has another season left on his contract, one that will earn him $21 million. While teams recently have become willing to swallow what’s left of onerous deals — the Colorado Rockies cut loose Jose Reyes despite owing him $38 million, the Los Angeles Dodgers jettisoned Carl Crawford despite owing him $35 million and the Kansas City Royals did the same with Omar Infante despite owing him $14.7 million — the Yankees have shown no inclination to do so.

That could change, depending on how the coming weeks unfold for the Yankees, who are not sure if they will be buyers or sellers as the Aug. 1 nonwaiver trade deadline approaches. Another twist is possible in October, when the Yankees turn their gaze toward next season.

When Rodriguez arrived at spring training in February, he was wary of setting expectations, but he spoke about how free he felt, how there was little weighing on him. But the neat, tidy, valedictory that he seemed to have set up for himself is not easy to write while sitting on the bench.

Categories: Sports

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