TRENTON -- Alex Rodriguez at Arm & Hammer Park on a pleasant Saturday night in August was, surely, not Ted Williams at Fenway in weak September daylight, playing his final game before 6,000 fans, homering in his last at-bat. The only real similarity is this: finality.
Rodriguez may have made the final trip to the plate of his 20-year professional career. We don't know. Williams had two places to go, Cooperstown and a fishing lodge in South Florida. Rodriguez's list is shorter.
The Trenton Thunder, Double-A team affiliate of the New York Yankees, were playing the Reading Fightin Phils. There would have been a nice crowd even without the road-kill spectacle. But this was live theater, awful though it was. There were about 9,000 in the house. I bought one of the last available seats, a $12 first-level green plastic seat about 20 rows behind home plate. Parking was another $4. The place smelled like a ballpark. It smelled good.
When Rodriguez, batting second, came to the plate in the first, the man in front of me — sandals, seersucker shirt, scorebook in hand — stood and yelled, "Cheater!" Across the aisle from him and one row up was a woman, dressed for a "Baywatch" audition, who looked like Cameron Diaz, circa 1999.
Where did these years go? How did Rodriguez end up here? I remember first hearing about him in March 1990. I was at spring training in Clearwater, Fla., covering the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I saw the paper's national baseball writer, Jayson Stark, in the parking lot of our condo. He was driving to Miami to write-up, he said, a high-school freshman shortstop "who can do it all." From the beginning, there were comparisons to Cal Ripken. That part didn't pan out.
Was Saturday night the end? With each at-bat, scores of cellphones went up, recording posterity. It will be years before we know their odd value. If Rodriguez has burned through his money, and he might have, he'll play out the string of retirement for a half-decade or more.
He looked sort of thick in the middle. He wore No. 13, no stenciled name. He wore his socks high, a sleeve in his left arm, swung the familiar black bat, retrieved by a dog when he walked in the first. He was back in the minors. He ran the bases as an act of self-preservation, not run production. The Thunder won 7-5. Trenton is smack-dab in the middle between Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park and there had to be divided loyalties among the witnesses. But there was nothing to cheer for.
Scott Price has an insightful story about Rodriguez in this week's magazine. The cover line is straight from his story: "The end is pain, and pain is ugly." Paul Giamatti, the actor, covers the same territory a bit differently: "Ends are never pretty."
Bud Selig is going to hand down a sentence on the Rodriguez fiasco any day now that will tell us more about what, exactly, we were watching Saturday night on the banks of the Delaware River. In 1989, Selig's predecessor's predecessor, Bart Giamatti, father of Paul, banished Pete Rose from the game, for gambling. Rose, like Shoeless Joe before him, was a Hall of Famer who never made it to Cooperstown. That wing is growing annually. By all logic, this was an end.
The old boss, George Steinbrenner, signed-off on the trade that brought Rodriguez to the Bronx from Texas in 2004. Rodriguez had the right to drain every last dollar out of his ability, if that's what he wanted to do, and Steinbrenner had the right to buy his way to October glory, if that's what he wanted to do. Still, you could be generous and call the alliance an unholy alliance. Rodriguez got his lone World Series ring in 2009, against the Phillies. Ted Williams went to his grave as a first-team legend. No ring, but a baseball god.
And here was Rodriguez, on a Saturday night in Trenton, doing the whole thing (maybe) one last time, playing third and batting second, facing the Reading Fightin Phils at Arm & Hammer Park.
He walked in the first, in the third, in the fifth and in the seventh. For the top of the eighth, another man in high black socks, Casey Stevenson, wearing No. 31, trotted out to third. Someday it will all be over for him, too. The man in front of me left the park. The blonde stayed.
When the game was over, nobody moved. The crowd watched the winners take the field like they were watching the final credits of a good movie. I was confused for a minute. Were they looking for a final glimpse of Alex Rodriguez? There was no sign of him. Then I figured it out. It was fireworks night at Arm & Hammer. From here on out, somebody else will play third base for the Trenton Thunder. The final booms hurt your ears.
In the third inning, a young Dominican, Maikel Franco, came up with two outs for the Phils. He wasn't even born when Jayson Stark made his trip to Miami in 1990 to watch a schoolboy phenom.
Rodriguez was playing him deep and Franco hit a bullet, almost over the bag. Rodriguez, moving like a big cat, made two fleet steps to his right, fielded it smoothly, made the big turn toward and the long throw, 130 feet of pure strike. He got him by half a step. Bang, bang. It was perfect.