Reaction from Yankee Stadium crowd split between cheers and jeers
NEW YORK -- Yankees fans delivered a mixed message on the topic of Alex Rodriguez on Friday night.
And when you think about it, that probably shouldn't have been a surprise for this extraordinarily talented but polarizing figure. And A-Rod's current situation is uncharted territory -- for him, for the Yankees, for fans of the Yankees and for all of baseball.
Never before had a man facing a 211-game suspension played a Major League game at home. Rodriguez, charged with numerous violations of baseball's joint drug agreement, is playing while his suspension is under appeal.
He had already played in three games in Chicago -- three losses in Chicago -- but Friday night was his 2013 debut at Yankee Stadium. And it was his home debut while facing the largest non-gambling suspension in the game's history.
There had been considerable conjecture about how Yankees fans would react to the return of A-Rod, but on Friday night the speculation was replaced by cheering and booing, at a decibel level suitable to baseball in the Bronx.
The Yankees were facing the Tigers, leaders of the American League Central and owners of a 12-game winning streak. But even that kind of competition wasn't stealing the central Gotham story line from Rodriguez and his vocal supporters and/or detractors.
When Rodriguez, playing third and batting fifth, was announced during pregame introductions, there was a lot of noise in both directions, but the cheers appeared to have a slight edge.
When he came to bat in the bottom of the first, the decibel-level battle escalated. Again it was close, maybe 52-48 close, with the cheers carrying the day. One thing sounded certain: The vast majority of the sellout crowd of 46,545 was involved in this argument, regardless of side. Either way, the A-Rod moments were the loudest moments of the evening.
Once we moved from the theoretical to the directly game-related, things changed. Moments after the big battle between ovation and denunciation, Rick Porcello struck out Rodriguez to end the inning with a runner in scoring position. At this point the boos, not surprisingly, had a truly substantial edge. The same thing happened in the third, when Rodriguez struck out again, again with a runner in scoring position.
When Rodriguez flied out to right in the fifth, there was initially a hopeful roar. He had, after all, put the ball in play. But this particular ball was hit without notable force. Then, in the eighth, against the flame-throwing Bruce Rondon, Rodriguez took a slider for a called third strike, and the boos were back in force.
We didn't get to witness the flip side of this phenomenon. That would have required a hit from A-Rod, who was removed from the game for defensive purposes and replaced by Jayson Nix in the ninth inning with the Yankees leading, 3-1.
The Yankees eventually prevailed, 4-3, in 10 innings, the winning run being scored, ironically or not, by Nix. Rodriguez was not available postgame to discuss either his reception or his performance.
But anybody who expected Yankees fans to universally forgive and forget -- or, on the other end of the spectrum, to unanimously condemn -- would have been disappointed.
There isn't a road map for this stuff. And if baseball is fortunate, it won't have to compile from this time forward an exhaustive record of how fans reacted to scores of players charged with performance-enhancing drug violations.
When Yankees manager Joe Girardi was asked before the game how he thought fans "should" react to the return of Rodriguez, he appropriately replied that he did not have a "should."
"The only thing you hope when you walk into a ballpark, whether you're at home or visiting, is that it's not personal," Girardi said. "The fans are going to react the way they're going to react. They bought their tickets, and that's part of it."
An argument can be made that at this point Rodriguez, who had earlier admitted three years of steroid abuse before the latest round of allegations, can be safely seen as a repeat offender. But if some of the partisans in the Bronx prefer to see him as innocent until proven otherwise in regard to the current charges, that is understandable.
For another night as the focus of attention, Alex Rodriguez continued to be a figure of controversy.
Even at home, even in the Bronx, there is no one-size-fits-all view of this player, this career, this individual.