David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Thirty feet from a shot at redemption, the distance between the on-deck circle and home plate, Alex Rodriguez's future with the Yankees veered wildly off course into unknown territory during Wednesday night's's Game 3 of the ALDS.
That's because in the ninth inning, with the Yankees trailing 2-1, Joe Girardi finally decided it was time for a change. The manager approached A-Rod, told him Ibanez, as a low-ball hitter, was a good matchup for Orioles closer Jim Johnson.
In reality, a much better matchup than Rodriguez, who was reduced to being a $29-million spectator with the game -- and potentially the Yankees' playoff life -- on the line.
"I told him you're scuffling right now," Girardi said. "I'm just going to take a shot."
In other words, A-Rod, take a seat. It was perhaps the boldest move of Girardi's career, and a risky one at that, given the possible long-term repercussions. But it also was the right move.
Ibañez rewarded Girardi by swatting the tying home run in the ninth, then followed with the winning blast off lefty Brian Matusz in the 12th in a 3-2 win. Not only was Girardi vindicated, Rodriguez had no choice but to celebrate what had to be an incredibly humbling moment for him personally.
He guessed he had not been pinch hit for since high school. Maybe even junior high. And when a player ultimately reaches that point, at 37, it can be a slippery slope. Still, A-Rod insisted he was not offended, even as Girardi later admitted the delicate nature of such a decision.
"Listen, I'm Joe's biggest fan," Rodriguez said. "Joe's always respected me to the utmost and I give it right back to him. We have 25 guys here. We're a family, no matter how we struggle or who does well.''
It also was a stunning reversal for Girardi, who refused to drop Rodriguez from the No. 3 spot for Game 3, only to pull him for a 40-year-old part-time outfielder. The payoff was immediate. Girardi would be immune from second-guessing on this one. Rodriguez, between boos, went 0-for-3 and struck out in his last two at-bats.
To Girardi's credit, he had seen enough. Or maybe this was more about self-preservation, as he surely knew sticking with A-Rod, when combined with another first-round playoff exit, would be difficult to explain during his season-ending debriefing with the Steinbrenners.
Rodriguez was the first to welcome Ibanez back to the dugout with a high-five and a hug. But when the Yankees took the field for the 10th, A-Rod leaned over a Gatorade cooler, staring from behind the dugout rail, probably trying to absorb what had just happened, like everyone else.
"Maybe 10 years ago, I react in a much different way," Rodriguez said. "But I'm in a place in my career right now where team is everything. I don't think there was anyone in the ballpark more excited for Raul than me."
Girardi was probably close. He had a lot on the line as well. After days of defending A-Rod, Girardi, with precious little time to overanalyze this move, relied on instinct. A rarity for him.
"It's a tough move," Giradi said. "Sometimes you've got to do what your gut tells you and my gut told me to make the move. I still have the utmost respect for Al and I think he's a great player. He's just going through a tough time right now."
Girardi didn't make any promises of what it might mean for the future, or even Thursday night's Game 4. Buck Showalter announced that lefty Joe Saunders will start, so Girardi could keep A-Rod in the No. 3 hole. But after Wednesday night, anything is possible now. It took a while, but that bridge has been crossed.