Let’s not call it “great,’’ but this was certainly one of the more memorable moments in the 103-year history of Fenway Park.
On a night when he was benched, Alex Rodriguez, the lightning rod of baseball hatred, walked to home plate as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning and launched a 3-and-0 Junichi Tazawa pitch into the Monster Seats for his 660th career homer, tying Willie Mays for fourth place on baseball’s all-time list. Fans booed Rodriguez on every step around the bases. The Red Sox made no acknowledgment of the milestone on the scoreboard or over the public address system. It was just another homer by some guy named Rodriguez. Yeesh.
Now it’s Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and A-Rod. That’s like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and . . . Costanza.
The laser-like blast broke a 2-2 tie and delivered a 3-2 win to the first-place Yankees. Of his 660 circuit clouts, this was A-Rod’s first pinch-hit homer. Carbo-esque almost.
If it makes you feel any better, ESPN New York reporter Wally Matthews spoke with a Yankees security official who said the fan who caught the baseball refused to relinquish the souvenir.
“Eddie [the security official] tried to get it, we’ll see what happens,’’ said Rodriguez. “I haven’t been good at negotiating. I’m going to quit on that.’’
Rodriguez was impressed by the gusto of the boos when he came to the plate in the eighth inning of the tie game.
“I usually don’t notice the difference, but that booing was pretty intense,’’ said A-Rod. “Passionate.’’
Indeed. Sox fans reacted as you knew they would. But the park went almost silent when Rodriguez hit a heat-seeking missile on Tazawa’s 3-and-0 pitch.
“Over my career, I haven’t been a guy to swing on 3-0,’’ said A-Rod. “But I got the green light. I figured the 3-0 pitch was going to be the best pitch I got . . . I hit that one good.’’
It was a game-winner. And Rodriguez was doused in champagne in the clubhouse after the victory.
We didn’t think any of this would happen when Yankees manager Joe Girardi submitted his lineup for the first game of this early May showdown series. Girardi had Rodriguez sitting on the bench while the immortal Garrett Jones served as the Yankees’ designated hitter against Red Sox octopus righthander Justin Masterson.
Fans who made the trek to Fenway were disgusted. They came to the Fens to stand and jeer Rodriguez. They came to bury A-Rod. They came to demonstrate their disgust with Rodriguez’s quest to catch (and pass) Mays on the home run list.
Girardi diplomatically and boringly explained that his all-lefthanded lineup was “a product of Masterson and the success lefthanders have had off him . . . My job is not to be caught up in milestones.’’ The manager also acknowledged, “But I do want to get it out of the way. The sooner we get it out of the way, the better.’’
This is how it often goes in baseball. Sox fans no doubt remember Tim Wakefield’s interminable trek toward 200 wins in 2011. Wake was stuck on 199 for many starts, but Terry Francona kept trotting out his knuckleballer while the Sox fell apart in September. Older Sox fans might remember the “Yaz Watch,’’ in 1979 when Captain Carl stalled at 2,999 hits. Baltimore scribe Peter Pascarelli compared the Yaz Watch to the lengthy wait that preceded the inevitable passing of Spain’s president Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Now we have the A-Rod Watch as Red Sox Nation and Baseball America wait for pariah Rodriguez to pass the much-revered Mays.
Rodriguez was in good spirits Friday. He greeted multiple Fenway folks who’ve worked at the park since he came to the majors at the age of 18 in 1994. For his first 10 seasons as a Yankee he dressed in a Fenway locker next to Derek Jeter by the clubhouse door. One might have assumed that A-Rod would be promoted to the Jeter locker now that the captain is gone, but the Yankees instead have given it to Brett Gardner. The Yankees’ clubhouse hierarchy, evidently, is based on continuous service with the ball club and — as you all know — A-Rod was suspended for all of last season.
No matter. Nothing is going to bother Rodriguez this year. Not publicly, at least. He’s working overtime to get into baseball heaven and he won’t be discouraged by benchings or locker assignments.
Rodriguez met with the media for seven minutes late Friday afternoon and was typically cordial and careful. Ever savvy, he opened the session by addressing Alex Corddry, a Channel 7 reporter he’d met just minutes earlier.
“It’s always good to come back to Boston,’’ he started. “I love it here, I love coming to the stadium, great fans. I’m happy . . . This is one of my favorite places to play. I don’t know if you guys are not old enough, some of you, but I started my career here when I was 18 years old. It was the first time I put on a big league uniform. I had my parents here, my mother, I had my brother and my sister. So I had some very fond memories. Say whatever you want about Boston, Fenway and the Boston fans have great appreciation and love for history.
“I love to study baseball and our history. You think about DiMaggio and Mantle and Ruth and Mays. I’ve said it before to you, he was my father’s favorite player. But also in the time that he did it, there’s absolutely no comparisons to me or anyone else to Willie Mays. Willie Mays, he’s the greatest baseball player of all time. It’s pretty exciting. All-around player, 24 All-Star Games, whatever it was, 20 or 24 All-Star Games. It’s pretty incredible. I haven’t even played 21 seasons. I wish my father was around.’’
When was asked if it bothered him that folks view his 660 homers differently from Mays’s 660, Rodriguez said, “You know, the only thing I can control is what I do from here on out and how I conduct myself both on and off the field. I can’t really decide for other people what to think . . . I have regrets and I’m trying to do the best to finish my career on a high note.’’
He didn’t want to talk about the $6 million “marketing” bonus the Yankees plan to withhold now that he’s reached the milestone.
“I’m focusing on baseball,’’ he said. “Those things will take care of themselves.’’
Did he think 660 might never happen?
“Yes,’’ he said. “I was in a cave in Miami, serving my time. But now I am very thankful to the Yankees and Major League Baseball. Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. Pretty special. The whole thing has been like a dream.’’
Or a nightmare if you are a Red Sox fan.