Probably nobody but A-Rod thought he could come back at 39 -- it's been a sweet story
Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said afterward that he knows Alex Rodgriguez likes the outside pitch, and this one wasn't quite where he wanted it. Soon enough it was where Justin really didn't want it -- in the seats, for A-Rod's 3000th career hit.
It's a different A-Rod who against most oddsmakers' predictions, after two seasons lost to that combination of injury and legal woes, staged a comeback this year at the age of 39 (he turns 40 on July 27). For once in his, er, "mature" career (by which I mean to separate out the early years when he was finding himself as a major leaguer, and doing things that nobody ought to have been able to do at that age, and not many players have been able to do at any age, seemingly effortlessly and with all that youthful joy) he has handled himself impeccably. Fans elsewhere may assume that the hometown crowd cut him some slack, but in fact nobody could have been harder on him than Yankee fans.
And he's handled it -- handled the hostile crowds, a not much friendlier cast of teammates, and the long layoff, by sticking to business. Manager Joe Girardi, faced with the job of overseeing A-Rod's return, had made the decision in spring training that Alex would exclusively DH, that he wasn't going to ask, or let, him complicate his comeback by returning to third base. It should be remembered that he racked up those prodigious stats as an infielder, and in fact for much of his career as a shortstop, and an outstanding one -- until he came to the Yankees and made the transition to third, alongside Jeter, and he made himself a pretty good third baseman. There were people who insisted they couldn't play together, but they did.
Age seemed to start to slow him down, and then all the drug investigations, and the hip injury. If there was anyone besides Alex who thought he could make it back, they kept it to themselves. As he said after the game, a year ago it wasn't at all clear that he was ever going to get a shot at No. 3000. Well, he earned that shot, and has looked better at the plate than he has in a number of years.
Last night wasn't his first shot at No. 3000, at least theoretically. He had another at bat Thursday night after notching Nos. 2998 and 2999, but buttwipe Florida Marlins pitcher Sam Dyson walked him on four virtual brushback pitches. So he came back last night against the Tigers' Justin Verlander, one of the game's great pitchers, but wearing down the last few years after his really heavy career workload, and making only his second start since returning from the disabled list. A-Rod, batting third, came up with two outs in the bottom of the first.
Verlander said afterwards that he really didn't think Alex would be swinging on the first pitch, and that the pitch -- a 95mph fastball -- wasn't quite where he wanted it, especially knowing that Alex can handle the outside pitch. Alex handled it, all right, lofting it over the wall in right-center field and joining Wade Boggs and Derek Jeter as the third player to hit the ball out of the park for his 3000th hit.
The great Hank Aaron homered for his 3001st hit in the same game in which he'd gotten hit No. 3000, which is pretty impressive but not the same thing. Speaking of Hammerin' Hank, Alex's 3000th put him in a club with just Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players to have at least 600 home runs and 3000 hits -- but add in at least 2000 RBIs, and it's just Hank and Alex. (If we're talking numbers, though, Aaron racked up 3771 hits, 755 HRs, and 2297 RBIs in his stupendous career, while maintaining a .305 career batting average.)
After the first-inning wallop, Alex hugged each of his teammates. It looked pretty genuine to me. Winning them over may have been the toughest hurdle of the comeback. For what it's worth, he also won me over. He was blessed with extraordinary physical gifts, no doubt. Still, he had to work awfully hard and play awfully smart to make the career he's made. The career blemishes are no doubt also there, and I suppose will kill his shot at the Hall of Fame. But the things he had to overcome to restart his career at his age, and the way he's pulled it off -- that's a heckuva story too.