NEW YORK — Alex Rodriguez is approaching Willie Mays on the all-time home run list and his own team won’t acknowledge this fact.
A-Rod is baseball’s pariah. He is the bubonic plague. Hating on A-Rod is one of America’s favorite parlor games. Even in his own organization.
Rodriguez went 2 for 5 with three strikeouts in Friday night’s Red Sox-Yankees series opener that went deep into the night. It’s weird to see him in uniform again. It’s weird to see him in the Yankee locker room, where he dresses next to Jacoby Ellsbury, a tremendous talent who never gets particularly close to his teammates.
The beloved Yankee stars are all gone. Bernie Williams. Andy Pettitte. Jorge Posada. Mariano Rivera. Finally, Derek Jeter. But A-Rod is back. He is back because the Yankees still owe him a giant bag of money ($61 million through 2017). He is back because he served his one-year suspension. He is back because he’s got nowhere else to go.
A-Rod wasn’t available for interviews before Friday’s marathon. He bolted past his clubhouse stall once, but couldn’t say anything because his mouth was full of mouthwash.
“That’s his new trick,’’ said a Yankee beat writer. “He’s got the mouthwash going and can’t say anything when he brushes past you.’’
This is an awkward situation for everybody. It is awkward for Hal and Hank Steinbrenner (this is one of those times we could really use Boss George’s bombast). It is awkward for Yankee GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi. It is awkward for A-Rod’s teammates. And it is awkward for the Yankee PR staff, one of the best in the business. They don’t quite know how to acknowledge A-Rod without appearing to celebrate his deeds.
After starting the season batting in the 7-hole, A-Rod was up to No. 3 Friday. He struck out in his first two at-bats, cracked an RBI single to center in the sixth, then fanned again in the eighth. A-Rod’s walk-up music is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.’’
Rodriguez hit a home run Thursday against the Blue Jays. It was his first homer since September 20, 2013, and the 655th of his career, five behind Mays.
There was a time when the Yankees were hoping A-Rod would become the all-time home run king. He was like Tiger Woods marching toward Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major titles. A-Rod had a chance to be the first 800-homer guy. And he would do it as a Yankee.
But that was before he got caught cheating and lied. And cheated again. And lied again. And sued everybody, including his own union.
Now there is no club-sanctioned celebration when he hits a home run. There is embarrassment.
And it’s going to be really embarrassing sometime soon when he hits his seventh home run of the season and passes Mays for fourth on the all-time list.
Willie Mays is a sacred name in baseball. Nobody wants to see A-Rod pass Willie Mays.
The other three home runs kings ahead of A-Rod are Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth — one cheatin’ scoundrel and two more hardball gods. A-Rod is owed a $6 million bonus every time he passes these magic markers. It is believed that the Yankees intend to withhold the bonus and take the matter to arbitration.
The Yankees believe that if it can be proven that the milestones are not marketable because they are tainted, the ball club will not have to pay the bonuses.
This is why you don’t see a lot of club-sponsored acknowledgment of A-Rod’s inching toward Messrs. Mays, Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds.
“We are very, very careful in not marketing these milestones,’’ said a high-ranking Yankee official.
This is why it is almost comical to read the Yankee press notes. There was a handout Friday night entitled, “2015 New York Yankees Upcoming Milestones.’’ The release revealed (among other things) that Dellin Betances needs 1⅓ innings to reach 100 career innings. Stephen Drew needs three homers to reach 100 for his career. It grudgingly stated that A-Rod needs to score three more runs to tie Derek Jeter for ninth place on the all-time list. Rodriguez needs one stolen base to tie the immortal Bert Daniels for 16th place on the Yankees’ all-time list.
There was nothing about Mays’s 660 homers. The only mention was in the daily notes where a small A-Rod section disclosed that he is fifth on the all-time homer list. There was no mention of A-Rod needing five to tie Mays.
A-Rod can no longer play shortstop or third base. He’s a full-time DH who experimented at first base in spring training. He can’t run. He’s limited. But he’s still here and he’s one of the few reasons to watch the crumbling Yankees in 2015.
“We saw him midway through the game schedule in spring training,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell. “He took some good swings against us there. Never count out a proven veteran.
“Obviously he’d had to work at getting back physically. You marvel at the number of games missed and to come back in and seemingly have good timing, particularly to some fastballs.
“You respect your opponent. A little bit more of a spotlight now that he goes into the 3-hole.”
The Yanks have not hit the road yet, so A-Rod has heard a lot of cheers and not many boos.
That will change Monday night when the Yankees play the Orioles at Camden Yards. The Yankees come to Boston on Friday, May 1. That should be good.
Maybe that’ll be the weekend that A-Rod hits No. 661 to vault Mays.
I can see the Daily News headline now: “Pay Day Kid Passes Say Hey Kid; Nobody Notices’’.
A-Rod is back. It’s a big bowl of awkward.