Every player must face the end of their career, and the great ones can have an emotional impact on fans. That impact, however, can vary from player to player. Rick Rowand sends New York Yankee legend Alex Rodriguez off with all the respect he’s earned through the years while playing in the greatest rivalry in sports.
In a press release late Wednesday afternoon, the Boston Red Sox announced: “Because of his contributions to the Boston Red Sox’ first World Championship in 86 years, the organization will be honoring Alex Rodriguez prior to his final game in a Yankees uniform Thursday night at Fenway Park. Because of A-Rod’s contributions to the game, we as an organization thought it obligatory to honor him before his last game here. Plus, it looks like this is the only way that he will actually be let onto the field by the Yankees.”
Both incidents are legendary, but some of today’s fans were still in diapers when they took place, so we thought a brief recap may be in order.
“First base is thataway”
The first, and arguably most important, contribution came during a nationally televised game on a muggy Saturday afternoon in late July – the 24th of 2004 to be exact. Red Sox rookie starter Bronson Arroyo was pitching in the top of the third inning, with the score already 3-0 in favor of the visiting Yankees. With 2 outs, A-Rod stepped to the plate. Arroyo was attempting to find the inside half of the plate when the ball rode a little too far inside and tapped Rodriguez harmlessly on his heavily-armored left elbow.
Arroyo’s fastball was never blazing and the pitch was obviously a mistake. No ill-intent there, but Rodriguez chose to stare down the rookie hurler and – as the Fox Game of the Week cameras pulled in for a closeup – started shouting at the Red Sox pitcher. It was at this point Boston’s catcher, Jason Varitek, decided to offer Rodriguez directions to first. The Captain felt the best method to show him how to get there was to turn A-Rod’s head in the correct direction with his glove.
Understandably, A-Rod took umbrage with the method in which Tek gave directions, and the benches cleared. Both teams raced onto the field with the bullpen guys sprinting in from right field and the dugouts emptying. Everyone on both sides were intent on upholding their teammates’ tarnished honor.
No damage was done, except to the Pride of the Yankees.
Both Rodriguez and Varitek were ejected from the game and the drama energized the Sox, as they came back from a deficit to win the game on a Bill Mueller walk-off two-run homer, 11-10. At the time of the game, the Red Sox were down by 8 1/2 games to their hated rivals in the standings. But after Varitek made A-Rod smell the glove, Boston ripped off a 40-15 record to close out the season, winning the Wild Card, and setting up their legendary American League Championship Series.
“The Slap Heard ‘Round The Baseball World”
A-Rod’s second great contribution to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry came during Game 6 of that ALCS, and also involved pitcher Bronson Arroyo. As you may have heard, the Sox had dropped the first three games of the series in humiliating defeats – each worse than the last – but had won both game four and game five in miraculous fashion to force a sixth game.
The Red Sox led 4-2 in the eighth with Arroyo – called on as a reliever – climbing the mound. Derek Jeter took his lead off of first with one out when the Ancient Mariner tapped a slow roller down the first base line. Arroyo fielded the dribbler and ran towards Rodriguez, attempting to apply the tag and prevent Jeter from scoring. Then, it happened:
Yes, A-Rod slapped an opposing player. As Arroyo neared A-Rod to tag him, Rodriguez surprised everyone and inexplicably reached out with his left hand and tried to swat the ball out of the fielder’s glove. A-Rod also attempted to veer away to the right, as if he had not just made physical contact with the ball. Rodriguez seemingly thought he could avoid the tag by karate chopping Arroyo’s glove and pretending he ducked the tag. The slap connected, the ball was jarred loose from the glove, and it dribbled into foul territory. Rodriguez ended up on second base, with an incredulous, “who me?” expression on his face. Like what he did was at all legal.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona politely pointed out to the umpires that even A-Rod wasn’t allowed to slap the ball out of the glove of fielders – and that he was out when he touched the ball and/or interfered with Arroyo. Francona conceded that A-Rod had serious cajones for trying such a maneuver – and an even bigger set by standing at second base pretending he hadn’t just blatantly cheated – but virtuous intentions or not, A-Rod had to be called out. The umpires huddled together and decided that A-Rod’s slap was illegal and they called him out, sent Jeter back to first, and Rodriguez back to the dugout where he belonged.
As we all know, the Sox went on to win the game, the ALCS and the World Series, ending almost a century of frustration. Perhaps they would have won without the slap, but A-Rod went the extra mile to ensure the Red Sox victory. That’s the kind of opponent Rodriguez was for the Red Sox – generous and considerate.
To honor this retiring legend, the Red Sox have announced that during Thursday’s final Fenway appearance the first base line –much like Pesky’s Pole – would be renamed The Rod in honor of Rodriguez’s impending retirement and his contributions to Red Sox lore. The Red Sox also announced that the first 15,000 fans would receive their choice of an A-Rod picture as a keepsake. Fans will be able to choose one of the following as a keepsake suitable for framing:
Thank you Alex!
Rick Rowand has written about Boston’s young stars, David Ortiz’s career, Brock Holt’s aura, and Boston’s new starting third baseman.
Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.