Friday March 6th, 2009

When I was a senior in high school, I was torn between two colleges. I wanted to attend SUNY Albany. I wanted to attend the University of Delaware. I debated and debated and debated, and on the final day I opened my desk drawer intending to read over each school's brochure one last time.

The Albany booklet was missing -- so I picked Delaware. (Five years later, I found the Albany information wedged behind the drawer, held in place by a moldy pretzel.)

Nearly two decades after the fact, I consider that miscue to be one of the greatest breaks of my life. At Delaware I learned to write and interview and report and, ahem, slug five shots of red Mad Dog 20/20 while reciting Keith Garagozzo's lifetime statistics in my underwear (alas, that's a story for another column).

Point is, sometimes, as if by fate, the worst news can evolve into the best news.

Enter Alex Rodriguez.

On Thursday the world learned that the beleaguered Yankees third baseman has a torn labrum in his right hip and that he might have to undergo surgery and miss as much as four months of the season. At the team's headquarters in Tampa the news was greeted like a decapitation. "We're collectively trying to figure out what is best to do," said Brian Cashman, the team's shaken general manager. "We don't want to rush into it. We want to digest it." Cashman, I must assume, looked as if he wanted to cry -- and understandably so. For a team that plays in baseball's toughest division, losing the game's biggest star isn't easy to digest.

But it should be.

Ever since SI's Selena Roberts and David Epstein broke the news last month that Rodriguez had used performance-enhancing drugs, the ballplayer's life has been one nonstop Ishtar loop. First, there was the humiliating interview with Peter Gammons. Then the press conference, plagued by the "emotional" lengthy pause that puts A-Rod in an acting class with Keanu Reeves and the robot girl from Small Wonder. A-Rod has been ripped by other major leaguers, slammed by fans, ridiculed on sports radio and mocked by columnists. Why, just four days ago, I watched the Dominican Republic's World Baseball Classic team arrive at the facility in Jupiter, Fla. As men like David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez and even Miguel Tejada were mostly left alone, Rodriguez was literally encircled by photographers, who stood inches from his face while capturing his oh-so exciting walk from here to there.

Generally speaking, I have little interest in professional athletes who cheat -- but Rodriguez earned my sympathy. Enough was enough.

Hence, this injury timeout may turn into the best thing to happen to Rodriguez. For the ensuing weeks A-Rod can vanish into the rehab abyss, living among the shadows of his more visible, active teammates. He can run and lift weights without being bothered about drugs; wake up in the morning sans fear of embarrassing headlines in the Post and Daily News. If luck has any impact, Rodriguez will return to a Yankee team mired in a slump, six or seven games behind Boston or Tampa Bay in the AL East and suffering through the brief-yet-painful third base duo of (egad) Cody Ransom and (glub) Angel Berroa.

Suddenly, the story is no longer A-Rod and performance enhancers, but A-Rod and redemption. Can the down-on-his-luck slugger return from X months away to lead New York to the pennant? Can a man whose history includes myriad chokes overcome his past to reach new heights?

See, that's the funny thing about we media folk in the modern Internet era. Whether such a philosophy is good or bad, we desperately crave the splashy story (the steroid scandal, the return from cancer, the clubhouse fight, the unexpected bonds between disparate cultures), but only until it runs out of steam after, oh, 17 seconds. Then, by demand and instinct, we turn our attention elsewhere. Yesterday it was the crazy woman with eight kids. Then the face-clawing monkey came along. Surely by next week there'll be an orphaned emu singing Debbie Gibson songs in a burka. A-Rod and juicing? It's already old news.

If nothing else, at the rate we're going A-Rod can rest assured that other ballplayers will be outed in the ongoing steroid hunt, wiping him off the back pages in the same manner that he wiped off Roger Clemens. Today's news, tomorrow's fish wrap.

So heed my advice, Alex, and bide your time.

In this profession, we all wield sharp pens ...

... and short memories.

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