Alex Rodriguez returns to Fenway Park on Friday night for the first time since his season-long suspension in 2014 for alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. He shouldn't expect welcome back signs.
Red Sox fans likely will let him know how they feel about his return. They've been waiting a year to do so. With the American League East-leading Yankees a game up on the Red Sox in the standings and Rodriguez trying to tie Willie Mays at 660 with his next home run, the rivalry is back at full throttle.
It basically was nonexistent last season. The Red Sox bottomed out in the standings and the Yankees tried and failed to stay in postseason contention. Throw in the feel-good moment of Boston fans' adoring farewell to Derek Jeter in his last game at Fenway, and entirely too much good will was dispensed.
"The rivalry is as always," general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday. "I expect Fenway to be the same as it always is, whether it's Alex coming back or Johnny Damon or [Jacoby] Ellsbury. Whoever it's been over the years, they usually aren't welcome because they're wearing the Yankees pinstripes."
Rodriguez is the exclamation point in the rekindling of it all, though he's playing it low-key. "I'm excited. I love playing at Fenway," he said Wednesday. "Fun place to play. Great fans, and obviously I have a lot of respect for everyone with the Red Sox."
The significant backstory to Rodriguez's pursuit of tying Mays for fourth on the all-time home run list is the Yankees' reported decision not to pay him a $6-million bonus as contained in a marketing agreement because the team believes his home runs have been tainted by suspected PED use. Cashman would not discuss specifics but said, "My position on the 660 is I think that's for the public and the media to debate where it ranks in real history because of the past. I'll leave that for other people to discuss and debate. Unfortunately, it's up for debate rather than [being] clear."
No less significant a storyline for the Yankees will be Friday night's start by CC Sabathia (0-4, 5.96 ERA). He gave up seven runs in five innings-plus against the Mets in his last outing. "I don't think his record reflects his performance," Cashman said. "I think his last game was his only poor start of the year and I think the previous games and the losses had more to do with other aspects of the club and not him. So if he pitches more like his starts before the Mets game, we'll be fine."
Sabathia remains confident that he will turn things around. "It's early in the season. I still have a lot of season left," he said. "I feel healthy. So hopefully I can go out and try to help us."
Sabathia said everyone has to pitch in while Masahiro Tanaka is sidelined with wrist and forearm issues. Cashman said he is not expecting anyone in particular to be the ace.
"I think in our case, with our team, I think it's a collective," he said. "We need to play good defense, we need to swing the bats, pitch well from the starting rotation through the bullpen. We do all that on a consistent basis, I think we're a team that can contend for the division title."