David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Rock bottom.
That's where Alex Rodriguez said he spent the months leading up to Wednesday's Grapefruit League debut at Steinbrenner Field.
We're not sure anyone with roughly $400 million in career earnings, and another $61 million on the way, can be quite that low, so let's split the difference and call it a sad place. Banished from baseball, shunned by the Yankees. Occasionally spotted on the sidelines of nationally televised college football game.
Not the life A-Rod had been accustomed to living.
And then comes Wednesday, when Rodriguez, back in pinstripes, hears his name introduced to the crowd of 9,673. Not all of them A-Rod fans, but more than he expected. The applause nearly drowned out the smattering of boos.
"Once you hit rock bottom, any time you hear a few cheers these days, it's a pleasant surprise," Rodriguez said after going 1-for-2 with a single and walk. "So it makes it better."
Rodriguez has never been a sympathetic figure, and despite a few of his recent attempts to tug on the heartstrings, it's not going to start now. The best that he can hope for is a return to normalcy -- accepted at home, harassed on the road -- and A-Rod got that Wednesday.
Joe Girardi batted Rodriguez second in the lineup against the Phillies to maximize his at-bats before he was lifted for a pinch-runner in the sixth inning. He swung through the first two fastballs, both a tick over 90 mph, and looked awkward doing so. On the next pitch, which skimmed by at 89, he slapped a liner into shallow leftfield.
What was there to take from that? Phillies starter Kevin Slowey seemed like he grooved all three and A-Rod got his bearings just in time to avoid looking foolish. "I felt like I was swinging underwater," Rodriguez said.
He bounced a two-hopper to short in his next at-bat, then later worked a 3-and-2 walk, surprising himself by resisting the outside fastball. Sort of a buzz-kill from where we were sitting, but Rodriguez has been stressing the need to be patient.
We'll try. After the daily theater of 2013, when each trip to the ballpark meant another turn on the A-Rod roller coaster, following him so far has been like riding the escalator at the mall. For Rodriguez, however, this more mundane existence has been a dream come true.
The boos will intensify on the road, but those will barely register with Rodriguez. "It's nothing new to him," Girardi said. "He knows how to block it out and prepare himself."
Everything seems to be going according to plan. Rodriguez will next play tomorrow, presumably at DH, again at Steinbrenner, and the march toward Opening Day continues. For all the buildup, this is what we may have to settle for -- Rodriguez doing the Grapefruit League thing, just like the rest of the Yankees. And that's fine with him.
"This is going to be a spring of firsts," he said. "Everything feels pretty strange right now."
That won't last. Wednesday's debut pulled in a little more national media, parachuting in for the spectacle that never really materialized, but that probably won't be a regular occurrence during the next month.
A-Rod was anxious to get back to baseball. Now that he's here, after the long wait, it's kind of like A-Rod never left -- except for the new faces around him, the ones trying to keep the Yankees from hitting rock bottom themselves.