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Season won't really begin until Rodriguez steps up

March 22, 2009|Wallace Matthews | Matthews writes for New York Newsday.

The calendar says the 2009 baseball season begins April 5 in Philadelphia. But this year, the calendar lies.

The season starts when Alex Rodriguez says it does.

You know it, I know it, the Yankees know it.

And Rodriguez knows it. Boy, does Rodriguez know it. Until the next time he steps into the batter's box, all of baseball is in a state of extended spring training.

After an off-season in which Rodriguez was:

* traded-in by Madonna for a younger model;

* trashed by his former manager in a book;

* sold out as a steroid cheat to Sports Illustrated by (we presume) an as-yet-unidentified player;

* operated on for a serious hip injury, and

* exposed (surprise, surprise) as a narcissist in a fashion magazine,

his first appearance in a major league ballgame is bound to be the most anticipated at-bat in baseball history.

That's when the games will really begin.

It is safe to say that never in the history of baseball, and probably not in the history of any sport, has an athlete ever returned to action carrying as much baggage as Rodriguez will lug with him the next time he comes to the plate.

And just to make it even juicier, what if that next at-bat happens to occur in Fenway Park?

Don't laugh. If all goes according to plan in Rodriguez's recovery, and if he holds true to his history of being an extraordinarily fast healer, he could be ready to return to the Yankee lineup right around April 24.

Which just so happens to be the date of the opener of a three-game Yankees-Red Sox series in Boston.

But the Yankees wouldn't be so callous as to subject him to that, would they? Or wouldn't they?

"When he's ready to go, we're going to plug him in," Yankee GM Brian Cashman said yesterday. "It doesn't matter who we're playing, or where. In our division, every game is huge and one game can make the difference. For the kind of money we're paying him, we're not going to coddle him."

Translation: Rodriguez made his own bed, and the Yankees are not about to tuck him in and read him a fairy tale. For $27 million a year, they expect him to play, and play well, as soon as he is cleared. No easing back into the lineup, no shielding him from hostile territory, the way Joe Torre did with Roger Clemens so many times, no cushy "homecoming" game to make him feel more comfortable.

He may be coming off the most tumultuous off-season in baseball history, and perhaps any sport, but no matter. The Yankees need him back in the lineup as soon as he can swing a bat.

"With all due respect to Cody Ransom," Cashman said, "The difference between the two players is astronomical."

Other athletes, of course, have come back from catastrophic off-seasons.

Ray Lewis returned to the NFL after copping a plea in a murder case, Joe Namath returned after a short-lived retirement prompted by a league investigation into his association with gamblers, Muhammad Ali returned to the ring after a nearly four-year exile for his refusal to serve in Vietnam and Mike Tyson made it back after serving three years in prison for a rape.

All of them made successful comebacks and eventually -- even Tyson -- returned to some semblance of public acceptance and even admiration.

But none of them had to overcome the cascade of negative events and relentlessly bad publicity that has buried Rodriguez over the past three months.

And none of them had to hit in Fenway Park.

"I believe he'll be fine, because I've seen it before," Cashman said, referring to Rodriguez's performance on Mystery Blonde Weekend in Boston, when he stared down hundreds of jeering Red Sox fans in Cinderella masks and ended the series with a game-winning home run. "I don't think he cares about any of that stuff."

True, probably his only regret today is that in those Details pictures, he wasn't kissing his own butt, although there are plenty of people doing it for him. And you can't really blame the guy for trying to develop an after-baseball career. As a celebrity spokesmodel.

Still, at some point this year, Alex Rodriguez will stop being a reality show and resume being a baseball player. What better time to pick up the Alex Rodriguez story than the evening of Friday, April 24 at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Yawkey Way?

On behalf of baseball fans everywhere, get well soon, Rodriguez. The season can't really start without you.

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