- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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BALTIMORE -- There's a scene in the first "Superman" movie in which a caped Christopher Reeve, distraught over Lois Lane's death, builds up enough velocity while airborne to make the earth spin backwards, thereby reinstating time to an earlier, pre-tragic state.
At the risk of stretching an analogy so far it needs labrum surgery, we're not suggesting that Alex Rodriguez's return to the New York Yankees' lineup was that awe-inspiring or cosmic in nature. A single triumphant swing can't un-ring a bell or remove the stain from a tarnished legacy.
But for those who marvel at the sight of pure athletic skill unencumbered by personal baggage, Rodriguez's performance in New York's 4-0 victory over Baltimore was stunning. It helped serve as a reminder why he's Alex Rodriguez, and we're not.
Before Rodriguez stepped in the batter's box against Jeremy Guthrie in the first inning, it had been more than seven months since he'd appeared in a baseball game that mattered. Since February, Rodriguez has had his life dissected in a book by Sports Illustrated's Selena Roberts and his right hip repaired by Dr. Marc Philippon in Colorado.
The surgery rehab ended this week. The book rehab might take the better part of the nine years left on his contract.
The ballpark, meanwhile, remains Rodriguez's place of refuge from steroid fallout, unnamed accusers, tabloid gossip and doomsday prognostications about his Hall of Fame candidacy. If the look in Rodriguez's eyes and the tone of his voice mean anything, he's determined to tune out all the static and concentrate on business.
"When I'm hungry and motivated, I know what I can do," he said. "The less talking I do, the better. I just want to let my baseball do my talking."
On the first pitch of his return, Rodriguez staged a one-man filibuster against the Orioles. He jumped on a 97 mph fastball from Guthrie and drove it over the fence in the direction of the "Big Mario's Pizza" sign for a three-run homer in the first inning. That was plenty for CC Sabathia, who threw a complete game four-hitter to help New York break a five-game losing streak.
Even the effervescent Nick Swisher was hard-pressed to string together a complete sentence after the game. When asked how difficult it must have been for Rodriguez to rehab from surgery, play a few games of extended spring training against a bunch of kids in Florida and then hit the first big league pitch he saw 380 feet for a home run, Swisher groped for the words to describe it.
"Amazing. Perfect. Storybook. Awesome," Swisher said. "Yeah, I'd probably say 'Awesome.'"
It's no secret that the Yankees are in need of a lift. They entered the weekend at 13-15 and were 5 ½ games behind first-place Toronto in the American League East. Xavier Nady, Chien-Ming Wang, relievers Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte, and catchers Jorge Posada and Jose Molina are all on the disabled list.
One scout at Camden Yards this weekend said the Yankees have been playing "uptight" under manager Joe Girardi. They're 20th in the majors with a .246 batting average with runners in scoring position, and the bullpen has given them ample reason to feel they're walking on eggshells every time they carry a lead into the late innings.
Even if some Yankees players privately think Rodriguez is self-serving, political or socially awkward -- as has been alleged -- they need him around simply because he's so good. It's ridiculous to think Rodriguez is some sort of "distraction" to the team, given the benefits he provides with his .967 career OPS, 554 homers and 10 Silver Slugger Awards. If anything, Rodriguez is a bigger distraction when he's not around, because his teammates have to do all the talking for him.
Swisher talked about the "different aura" surrounding the Yankees in light of Rodriguez's return and Sabathia's shutdown pitching, and said A-Rod's teammates are anxious to support him in the face of his off-field issues.
"That's the one great thing about this team," Swisher said. "This is a united front. Everybody's got each other's back, and we're gonna defend each other right away."
Swisher was also dismissive of Roberts' book, which provides details of Rodriguez's steroid use, alleged pitch-tipping in Texas and numerous other transgressions. He apparently hasn't noticed that it was 194th on the Amazon list entering the weekend.
"Ain't nobody gonna read that book," he said. "Write that down."
The mood at the ballpark Friday was, naturally, rife with anticipation. Rodriguez took a pregame seat amid a claustrophobic scrum of reporters in the third-base dugout, and answered questions from a wave of electronic media before taking on a second wave of print reporters. Yankees fans stood behind the dugout, and one female fan held a "Welcome Back A-Rod" sign.
I've had a lot come my way over the last 16-18 months, and I'm trying to be the best human being I can and move forward. I think I've been upfront. I think I've paid a price, and now I'm looking forward to the present and the future.
”-- Alex Rodriguez
It was a stark contrast to the game, when Orioles fans waved foam rubber syringes in the seats behind home plate.
Rodriguez said he has been in touch with Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell and is heartened by how well they've performed coming off hip surgery. He said Philippon is "happy and encouraged" with his progress from surgery, and revealed that the doctor thinks it's 50-50 whether he'll require a second surgery on the hip in the offseason.
After the game, Rodriguez admitted that his hip bothered him so much in the final two months of the 2008 season, he was helpless against a half-decent fastball.
"Anything above 92 miles an hour, I didn't feel like I had a prayer," he said.
Rodriguez came up short in a dive for an Adam Jones ground ball in the first inning, and concedes that he's still a step slow in the field. He also knows that his rehab hasn't ended; he plans to spend a lot of time on daily sessions in the pool to continue to build strength in his hip.
As for Roberts' book, Rodriguez reiterated that it will not be part of his conversational agenda in coming weeks.
"I know [reporters] have to ask, but you can ask me all year five or six different ways, and my answer is going to be the same," he said. "I'm not answering anything that has to do with that book."
The hype leading up to Rodriguez's comeback was overshadowed on Thursday when Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers was suspended 50 games for violating MLB's drug policy. But at this point, A-Rod has enough to worry about without scoreboard-watching. He doesn't have any feelings one way or the other on Manny.
"I've had a lot come my way over the last 16-18 months, and I'm trying to be the best human being I can and move forward," Rodriguez said. "I think I've been upfront. I think I've paid a price, and now I'm looking forward to the present and the future. At the end of the day, I'm worried about my book. I think I still have an opportunity to have a happy ending."
To his dismay, Rodriguez will never be able to turn back time. But he couldn't have asked for more in taking his first step forward.