BOSTON—Moments before the first at-bat of his last game at Fenway Park as a member of the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez stepped out of the on-deck circle and motioned toward himself.
The young Yankees fan in the front row paused mid-“A-Rod!” and pressed himself against the netting.
“You want to play a game?” Rodriguez asked him. (Jacob Doherty, 10, did.) “If I do one of the three following things, you get my bat. One, I hit a home run—that’s highly unlikely. Two, I get two hits—highly unlikely. Or three, we win, and I’ve got a good feeling about that.”
Jacob spent the next eight innings shouting encouragement at his new friend, reminding him to keep his shoulders square and suggesting that he consider a bat flip after a possible home run.
Rodriguez, as it turned out, had correctly calculated the odds of his events: He went 0 for 4 with an RBI groundout, but New York topped the Red Sox, 4–2, to take the series.
If his abbreviated retirement tour couldn’t quite include a Ted Williams moment, Rodriguez settled for a Babe Ruth one. It was a feel-good memory in a week short on them.
Nothing about the end of A-Rod’s Yankees career has gone smoothly, from the front office’s decision that the greatest player of his generation has suddenly become unplayable over the likes of Aaron Hicks, who is hitting .191, to manager Joe Girardi’s broken promise to give his former star as many at bats as he wanted. (“I think I got caught up in the emotions,” Girardi said later, explaining why Rodriguez would start only two of his last four games as a Yankee. “I’m managing to win the games.”)
The fans at Fenway chanted “We want A-Rod” in high-leverage situations for two nights, then booed lustily when they got him. (The announcement was so last minute that, much to their dismay, the T-shirt vendors lining Kenmore Square didn’t have time to add A-Rod to their list of “is a douche” options, alongside LeBron James and Roger Goodell.) We can’t even agree on what to call this circus: Rodriguez, 41, has carefully avoided the word retirement—if he officially hangs it up, New York is no longer responsible for the remaining $26 million on the 10-year, $275 million deal he signed before the 2008 season—and the brass has stopped short of saying it offered him an ultimatum.
Jacob, now the proud owner of a game-used black Louisville Slugger C271L and a pair of navy wristbands, summed up the imbroglio with his sign, made of black marker on two taped-together pieces of printer paper: “WE WILL ALL MISS U A-ROD. WELL AT LEAST I WILL!!!!”
A lightning rod since a scout told Sports Illustrated in ’93 that Rodriguez was “the next Cal Ripken,” he has found his treatment during his final handful of games reflecting his at-times turbulent career. He hit 696 home runs and won three MVP awards; he was linked definitively to performance-enhancing drugs in at least eight of his 22 seasons. He hit .365 with six home runs in the 2009 playoffs, carrying New York to the World Series title; in '11, he became the first player in baseball history to end his team’s postseason with a strikeout two years in a row. He is famously in love with baseball, yet he helped chip away at the integrity of the game.
“Tomorrow is about me thanking the fans for putting up with me for a such a long time,” he said Thursday of Friday’s scheduled final home game at Yankee Stadium.
The last days have been awkward at best, a situation thrown into stark relief by the All-Star flourish David Ortiz is putting on his career, in the opposing dugout. Ortiz, 40, announced before the season began that this year would be his last, and he has been feted everywhere he has gone, acknowledged by opposing players and fans alike. For Rodriguez, who is hitting .203 and has started two of the team’s last 16 games, there was no rocking chair, no surfboard, no cowboy boots. The only mention of his milestone came during his second at-bat, a popup to second, when the scoreboard flashed “Alex Rodriguez is appearing at Fenway Park for the last time as a member of the Yankees.”
Rodriguez spent a private moment before the game inside the Green Monster, which he had never visited, posing with a metal No. 13—“It will be pretty good for my Instagram account,” he joked afterward—and thinking about his first of 3,114 career hits, which came in Boston in 1994, when he was an 18-year-old Mariner 13 months removed from being the first pick in the '93 draft. He did not add his signature to the wall alongside the thousands of others.
New York has planned a ceremony for him before Friday’s game, the first in a weekend that will also include a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1996 championship team and the dedication of Mariano Rivera’s plaque in Monument Park—an event that will provide an opportunity for yet another controversy as the team decides whether or not to honor A-Rod there. (“It’s a bridge to cross when we come to it,” principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said Monday.) Rodriguez will be released Saturday morning and has said he plans to begin his new role as a special advisor to the team in spring training of next year.
But he may get another chance at a victory lap.
“I haven’t thought about it at all,” Rodriguez insists every time anyone asks him if he will sign elsewhere for the rest of the season, but his teammates aren’t so sure.
“I personally as a friend don’t see a guy that’s ready to never put on the uniform again,” says leftfielder Brett Gardner, who has played with Rodriguez since 2008. As for A-Rod’s desire to reach 700 home runs, Gardner adds, “I think he’s got a lot more than four in him. It’s just a matter of finding the right opportunity.”
Rodriguez will have a lot of reflecting to do. He feels he can still play—he asked for an opportunity to start at third base on Friday, which Girardi denied—but the multifaceted nature of his legacy is not lost on him. “There are so many” regrets, Rodriguez admitted before Wednesday’s game, referring to his doping.
For Jacob, who is obsessed with A-Rod despite the best efforts of his Red Sox–loving mother Michele, the regrets are a little simpler.
“We should’ve come up with a secret handshake!” he says.