Nothing dies pretty. Reputations, marriages, dream careers: They can sail for decades undented; even at 38, you can be all kinds of gorgeous. But the end? The end is pain, and pain is ugly. The night before, he had lumbered toward second, trying to stretch a single into a double. Getting there seemed to take forever. "That's my speed right now," said Alex Rodriguez, the slugger who stole 46 bases one season just because he could. "It wasn't too embarrassing, was it?" He even tried to laugh.
Now it was late afternoon on the following day, a Saturday in the third week of July. His team was the Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, a clanky mouthful even if you're not used to the sound of New York Yankees, and it may well have been his last. Word had it that Rodriguez was facing an imminent, lengthy and perhaps career-ending suspension by Major League Baseball for his alleged involvement, again, with performance-enhancing drugs. Meanwhile Yankees management, determined to slash payroll in 2014, had handled Rodriguez's 20-day rehab tour of the minors like a leper's return, treating their onetime heir to DiMaggio and Mantle—now recovering from major hip surgery that took place in January—with a disdain not seen in the Bronx since George Steinbrenner's acidic prime.
When, last month, Rodriguez preempted a team announcement and tweeted that his doctor had given him "the green light to play games again!" New York general manager Brian Cashman responded that "Alex should just shut the f--- up." If it didn't have the ring of Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man," the line still entered Yankees lore at full gallop. Nerdy exec usually loses in the p.r. battle against Hall-of-Fame talent, but support for A-Rod sounded like two crickets chirping. A tone was set.
Indeed, as he sat before his locker in the nifty ballpark hard by the tracks in tiny Moosic, Pa., Rodriguez's isolation verged on total. Hunkering daily by phone with lawyers and flacks, hurling a pregame medicine ball alone with a trainer, he came off like nothing so much as baseball's man without a country. No possible outcome promised calm harbor. Why not hole up in some manse and wait for the commissioner's hammer? The only puzzle was in figuring why he bothered to be here at all.
"It's who I am, right?" Rodriguez told SI. "My father was a baseball player. When I was in my mom's belly, I just heard baseball, had Mets and Yankees games on, living in New York. That's in my blood. It's my DNA. That's who I am. That's what God gave me: my talents, my skills.
"And I want to simplify it in my life. I'm going back to being just a baseball player. And trying to put that all ... everything else.... " He waved a hand back over his shoulder, as if it were that easy to shove a career's worth of gossip and nonsense—not to mention the rising clamor surrounding baseball's Biogenesis investigation—into some soundproof box. "That's good enough for me."
Outside, ushers donned elf hats and a Santa statue towered in the concourse; carols filled the blast-furnace air: the RailRiders' "Christmas in July" promotion. Inside, Rodriguez was already feeling the tightness in his left quadriceps that would reduce him, that night, to designated hitter. His "brothers," the Yankees, were 300 miles away, winning in Boston, but even with the broadcast blaring, it seemed farther. He and the team had been making polite noise about his imminent return to the Bronx—just two days to go!—but the camps eyed each other with a startlingly palpable distrust.
His side was eager to peddle the theory that the Yankees would—even with their horrid production at third base this season—do anything to keep Rodriguez from playing for them again. Team personnel made little effort to shoot down the idea that A-Rod's rehab tour could be an elaborate charade designed to set up a pre-ban "forced" retirement, which would allow A-Rod to salvage, through insurance payments, some of the $114 million he's still owed. Both sides denied such speculation publicly, of course, but weren't above taking sly shots at each other through leaks, columnists and radio talk shows.
In fact, now Rodriguez interrupted himself in mid-sentence, held up a hand to hear: the voice of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, in Boston, talking about him. " ... He continues to swing the bat better and better every day.... He's moving better and better.... We expect to have him on Monday, and I know I can't run him out there every day, but we're going to run him out there as much as we can.... "
A-Rod furrowed his brow, as if absorbing a vital bulletin. Maybe he really didn't know what the Yankees were thinking. Or maybe, even after 20 years, he still finds a thrill in being talked about, in being back at the red-hot center no matter what burns may come. When asked if he believes that, with Cashman's words and the fact that Girardi sat him repeatedly during last year's division series, his relationship with the Yankees has fractured, he said, "First of all, thank God they benched me because ..." then paused, eyes widening, to listen now to Tim McCarver, talking on the TV 25 feet away.