David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Alex Rodriguez didn't quite make it to 3,000 hits last night, but in getting to the brink after his two-hit performance against the Marlins, it's now abundantly clear where he stands among the Yankee Stadium faithful.
There's a new favorite son in the Bronx.
During Rodriguez's eighth-inning at-bat, his last of the game, most of the 38,239 fans were on their feet, holding up their phones, ready for the historic snapshot. But Marlins reliever Sam Dyson never threw Rodriguez a strike, and the boos increased in volume with every pitch.
When A-Rod finally walked on four pitches, the crowd savaged Dyson with some very loud obscenity-themed chants. It was as boisterous as the Bronx has been in a long time, and now we're due for another round of it tonight against the Tigers.
"That was phenomenal," Rodriguez said.
The moment really was, in all its random, non-scripted, underplayed glory. With the Yankees trying to stay detached from all of A-Rod's milestones -- for the sake of a disputed $6 million -- this one hasn't been shoved down our throats. No scoreboard countdown, no AROD3K T-shirts, no hoopla. Nothing. Zip.
This A-Rod redemption tour isn't sponsored by Steiner, or celebrated with officially sanctioned MLB merchandise. It's just been a contrite Rodriguez, chipping away at the record book, winning back the hearts and mind of Yankees fans -- while helping the team pick up a few victories in the process.
The crowd's reaction Thursday night was genuine, a raucous outpouring of support for Rodriguez. He's still the reformed Biogenesis cheat, but as far as the Bronx is concerned, A-Rod remains one of their own. The treatment Dyson got was Pedro quality. The second deck didn't shake like the old place, but this reminded you of what the new building is capable of -- and it was for A-Rod.
"It was nice to see," Joe Girardi said. "I think people appreciate what he's done for our club this year, and how he's been a part of our winning. And I think they're showing it."
That should carry over to Friday night, and the wait may not be very long. Rodriguez is 10-for-28 with four homers against Justin Verlander, who will be making his second start since coming off the DL, so it wouldn't be all that surprising to witness him match Derek Jeter by also going deep for 3,000.
But that's A-Rod. As one of the most polarizing figures in the sport's history, he rarely seems to have an ordinary day -- and yesterday was no exception.
It began with an MLB-sponsored baseball clinic across the street from Yankee Stadium, where Rodriguez -- Public Enemy No. 1 only two years ago -- now appeared to be BFFs with new commissioner Rob Manfred, who essentially was Bud Selig's lead prosecutor in the Biogenesis scandal.
Both sides have come to realize they're better off on friendly terms -- or at least tolerant of each other. After a bitter fight, Manfred isn't quite ready to embrace Rodriguez during this historic season. But there's no ignoring it, either, as the Yankees have reluctantly come to admit six weeks in.
"Alex went through a very difficult period," Manfred told Newsday's Mike Gavin. "He was gone for a year. He's back. He is a major-league player, just like every one of the other 750 of them."
OK, so it's not like Manfred is going to be buying a No. 13 pinstriped jersey any time soon. We get that. But whatever your feelings toward A-Rod's PED-stained past, the numbers are the numbers.
And after 3,000 hits, what's left to conquer? Rodriguez won't reach Barry Bonds' all-time homer record, and Hank Aaron has a sizable lead in RBIs (2,297). A-Rod tells us every chance he gets that it's been all about winning since his return, just hanging with teammates in the clubhouse again, simply playing the game.
For an extremely complicated superstar, that stripped-down mindset has been his path to salvation. Reducing the sport to its most basic element: bat connecting with ball. And with each hit, the crowd gets louder.
For A-Rod, the game has never been more fun than during the past few weeks as he's closed in on 3,000. Yankee Stadium is feeling that way, too.