And there he stood, once again.
Bottom of the ninth, down by three, runners on first and second, Alex Rodriguez stepped into the box. He stood tall, confident, and with socks pulled high, visions of April walk-offs saturating the hearts and minds of all those fans who remained on this cold, abrasive, early spring night.
Jeremy Accardo, the Blue Jays young closer, had nowhere to put A-Rod. The Captain had reached first on an infield single when Aaron Hill, after making a diving stop in the second base hole, couldn’t come up with the ball cleanly. Bobby Abreu then muscled a fastball into centerfield for a looping base hit, and every person watching cracked that same, smug, yet incredulous smile.
Here it is, we thought. Here is the moment. Games played for this team and in this stadium always find their way to Number 13.
And so, without the slightest hesitation, game number two of the 2008 season was coming down to Alex. Why should this night be any different?
Only two innings earlier, in the bottom of the seventh, A-Rod had connected on a pitch from A.J. Burnett when nobody else could, knocking the ball through the thick air and gusty wind with such force that it left the yard to straight-away center. With one swing of his bat, Alex reminded everyone who was in the house. Jeter came to the top step of the dugout as his teammate circled the bases, a grin mixed with equal parts joy and amazement stretching from ear to ear.
And there he stood, once again, digging into the box.
A-Rod would later say, “I took my cuts,” and the truth is that he did. Accardo came right after last year’s American League MVP, the crowd serenading their star with the rhythmic chant of “M-V-P!” He fouled off a few, took a few, and rapped a hanging slider just wide and short of the left field foul pole. Eventually, somewhat inevitably, the count was three-and-two.
Accardo then twisted back, and uncorked heat. A-Rod took his stride, focused his eyes, and unleashed the bat. Everything slowed down now as two opposing, natural forces prepared for the dance, each focused squarely on the journey, never the finish line. On this night however, a happy baseball found leather, not wood, and the mighty Alex had struck out.
The Yankees would end up losing this Mussina-Burnett matchup 5-2, even after Giambi sent a ball to the track in the wake of A-Rod’s strikeout, even after the aging Moose with the aging stubble pitched a decent, gritty game. Looking back, if not for one bad pitch to Vernon Wells in the top of the third, which resulted in a two-run homerun into the first few rows in left field, the crafty veteran was looking at a two-run evening over five-and-two-thirds. Instead, he gave up four, Latroy Hawkins gave up one in relief, and a ninth-inning rally that looked so much like last April never materialized.
But hey, today is April 3, 2008, and baseball is back in town, right? Rest assured, Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees will live to fight another day.
The best part about last night is, we all believe now that Number 13 will come through for us in those game-on-the-line situations, more often than not. The energy lighting up the ballpark in the ninth inning confirms this belief, which is a world away from the depths and the boos of 2006, and a lifetime away from the opt-out controversy of October 2007.
I guess that’s what happens when you hit .452 with 19 homeruns and 42 RBI’s in the ninth inning last season, then take back control of your life from your overbearing, ego-maniacal agent during the winter. I guess that’s what happens when you commit the remainder of your career to the city of New York, even when we haven’t always made it easy for you.
In short, welcome back, A-Rod.
You’ll get’em next time.