In the wake of the 2,784th game of his major league career, Alex Rodriguez was asked if he had any hope of suiting up for a 2,785th game.
Rodriguez paused for a few seconds — he’s an expert on how the spoken word can, and will, be used against him — then answered: “It’s going to be tough to top tonight. That’s a memory I will own forever.”
That wasn’t a “yes, I want to continue playing.” But neither was it a “no, I’m retired.”
After all these years, Alex Rodriguez still can’t handle the truth.
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Friday night had been arranged as Rodriguez’s baseball farewell, but A-Rod being A-Rod, and the Yankees being the Yankees, it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.
Last week, a team on the fringe of the American League wild-card race informed a 14-time All-Star it no longer wanted him. Rodriguez did not have any input in the decision, which is another way of saying he was fired.
It was a weird ending to a weird career rooted in Tacoma, where a 19-year-old shortstop needed only a few dozen games with the Rainiers to reveal himself as a perfect baseball specimen. At 6 foot 3, he was lean, fast, strong and graceful, a clean-cut kid with the confident smile of somebody destined to go places.
The 1996 Mariners had a job open for a full-time shortstop, and while Rodriguez — the No. 1 overall pick of the 1993 draft — was presumed to be the long-term answer, there were doubts a teenager would be up to the task of starting for the defending AL West champions.
Rodriguez responded to the challenge with one of the greatest seasons ever produced by a player who had yet to turn 21. He won the AL batting title by hitting .358, led the league with 54 doubles and 141 runs scored, and finished second in an MVP race that found him splitting votes with teammate Ken Griffey Jr.
If Rodriguez makes his sensational splash 40 years sooner — if the Mariners existed 40 years sooner — he remains in Seattle for the duration of a career distinguished by the several trips he, Griffey and Randy Johnson make to the World Series as cornerstones of a kissed-by-the-fates franchise.
But it was 1996, and five seasons later, Rodriguez exercised his free-agent rights, ditching Seattle as unceremoniously as Johnson and Griffey did.
The milestone contract Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers before 2001 put him in a spotlight where he was under pressure to excel, leading him into the temptation of using steroids. At least that was the story he told, two years after insisting he was clean during an interview on “60 Minutes.”
From Texas it was on to New York City, home of the tabloid headlines that mocked Rodriguez whenever he stumbled, on the field and off.
“The only thing I ask for this group today, and the American people, is to judge me from this day forward,” Rodriguez said when the Yankees’ spring-training camp opened in 2009, four years before he was pinched in the Biogenesis lab scandal.
Major League Baseball determined Rodriguez guilty of using “numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone, over the course of multiple years.” He also was cited for his “attempts to cover up these violations and obstruct a league investigation.”
Suspended for the 2014 season, Rodriguez returned last year as a surprisingly serviceable third baseman. The wheels appear to have fallen off for good in 2016. At 41, his bat can’t get around on the 95-mph fastballs he’s bound to see — or may not see — several times a week, which explains why a .295 career hitter was plodding through the middle of August with a .200 batting average.
And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rodriguez resurfaces somewhere. He’s got 696 lifetime homers, tainted though they may be, and an ego that won’t allow his last hurrah to be a slap in the face.
Granted, that slap is softened by the fact the Yankees are on the hook to pay him what remains of his $21-million-a-year contract this season, and $21 million next season, when he’ll take on an “advisory” role in the front office.
Heaven knows what advice awaits from a former player who at 19 had it all in Tacoma — ideal physique, textbook fundamentals, unlimited future — and retired as the most imperfect of baseball superstars.
But is he really, truly, this-is-it, there’s-no-turning-back-now retired?
You never know with Alex Rodriguez. You never will.