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'If I don't defend myself, who will?'

Posted: August 8, 2013 - 12:10am
New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, left, looks from the plate during his first at-bat during a Class AA baseball game with the Trenton Thunder against the Reading Phillies, Monday, July 15, 2013, in Reading, Pa. Rodriguez is doing a rehab assignment with the Thunder recuperating from hip surgery. (AP Photo/Reading Eagle, Jeremy Drey)  Jeremy Drey
Jeremy Drey
New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, left, looks from the plate during his first at-bat during a Class AA baseball game with the Trenton Thunder against the Reading Phillies, Monday, July 15, 2013, in Reading, Pa. Rodriguez is doing a rehab assignment with the Thunder recuperating from hip surgery. (AP Photo/Reading Eagle, Jeremy Drey)

CHICAGO — Alex Rodriguez sat mostly still in a chair for 13 long minutes doing his best to look thoughtful. He rested his chin first in his right hand and then his left. He made eye contact with every questioner. He took great pains to repeat over and over what was at stake.

Only someone stepping off a spaceship wouldn’t know.

A-Rod was addressing those people, too, as well as baseball fans everywhere and for some reason, “all the Hispanics all over the world.”

Rodriguez wanted all of them to know that the last seven months have been “probably the worst time of my life — for sure.” And that even though A-Rod said he’s “fighting for my life,” he’s focused on the job at hand and “thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity” to put on the uniform of a Yankee team he loves and play the game he loves even more.

As for the charges of PED use leveled against him by Major League Baseball stemming from an investigation into the now-shuttered Biogenesis of America clinic, well, A-Rod was playing that a little closer to the vest.

“I’m not going to get into any of that today,” he said.

“But what we’ve always fought for was for the process,” Rodriguez added a moment later, “and I think we have that and at some point we’ll sit in front of an arbiter and give our case. And that’s as much as I feel comfortable telling you right now.”

Here’s hoping he has better material stashed somewhere for that arbitrator. Otherwise, as soon as the appeal process that has allowed him back into baseball ends, A-Rod is as good as gone through the end of the 2014 season — and maybe for good after that.

The most honest moment of his pregame interview might have come when A-Rod was asked whether the Yankees — who still owe him about $94 million through 2017 — want him back.

“If I’m productive,” he said through a sly smile, “they want me back.”

If there’s likely to be any lasting justice in this entire sideshow, that’s it. Either MLB is going to make an example of A-Rod and run him out of the game — or he’s going to do it himself.

Asked about either possibility, Rodriguez replied breezily, “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

But just a few moments earlier, he made a point of noting that he was 38, already old for a ballplayer, and feeling every day of it. He’s coming off a long, punishing rehab stint after surgery on a damaged left hip, and when last we glimpsed him — in last season’s AL championship series against the Tigers — A-Rod’s declining skills at the plate were dubious enough that Yankees manager Joe Girardi wouldn’t even employ him as a decoy in a late-inning, pinch-hit situation.

Rodriguez is hardly the first or last guy to put himself under a cloud for PED use. You could argue he’s not even the biggest name. There was Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire, and they were all implicated even before A-Rod acknowledged a first brush with the stuff four years ago. He’s not as abrasive as Bonds or Clemens, nor as reticent as McGwire.

But unlike any of the three, he’s likely to spend the rest of his career without the armor that made the boos, slights and constant snickers easier to overlook. He won’t be the most feared hitter in any lineup anymore, nor the guy on the mound that everybody in the park knows can still rear back and bring some heat. No, his decline is likely to be both lingering and painful, no matter how the process he’s suddenly put so much faith in goes.

Girardi penciled in Rodriguez at third base and into the cleanup spot for the first game of this series against the White Sox and said, “It’s clear what the expectations are based on where I put him in the lineup.”

But that doesn’t really clear things up much, since the replacements for Rodriguez at third base so far have fewer homers than the Cubs pitching staff and were batting a paltry .215. And their salaries — combined — are pretty much tip money for A-Rod.

Whether his teammates expect more is hard to say. For the first time since the dawn of the steroid era, baseball players are starting to speak forcefully about the damage the cheaters among them have done to everyone’s reputation — but only so much.

“I’m not surprised by the names,” Alfonso Soriano said. “It surprises me that people keep trying.

“God gave you the talent, so don’t try and be a superhero or something like that,” he added a moment later. “Play with the talent that God gave to you and see what happens.”

The problem with that, as with being a gunfighter back in the old West, is that somebody always comes along who’s younger and quicker on the draw. However many more seasons, or better ones, A-Rod hoped to wring out of those talents hardly matters now. He’s on his own, finally, for good and about to find out what a lonely feeling that can be.

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