Sunday August 15th, 2010

NEW YORK -- As Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez jogged in from the bullpen to pitch a ninth inning -- meaningless if not for the fact that it was his first appearance since his arrest for assault and the night he spent in the holding cell at Citi Field three nights ago -- fans greeted him with mild boos.

It could have been worse. The crowd appeared to be somewhat thinned and otherwise lulled to apathy by a dominant outing from Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, who threw eight shutout innings, and by New York's defensive woes in which three errors led to three unearned runs. Rodriguez, who was returning from a two-day suspension, gave up a leadoff double but then retired the next three batters, as the Phillies beat the Mets 4-0 (RECAP | BOX).

"That's something I cannot control," K-Rod said of the reception. "Every time I do my job, I feel fine. But at the same time it's not as satisfying as when you win, so we're just going to turn the page and tomorrow try to win this series."

Those were among two minutes of postgame questions he took from reporters, responding only to queries about baseball. That was more than twice the amount of time he spoke before the game, in which he apologized for his behavior but took no questions.

"He was very apologetic as to the position that he put us in," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said, "and felt the best way to repay us was to go out and try to do his job. I take it to be a very sincere apology."

Manuel, of course, apparently didn't need such an apology to put K-Rod back in the game. In advance of Thursday's 12:10 p.m. matinee against the Rockies, Manuel met the media at 11 a.m. and said he would have no hesitation pitching Rodriguez that afternoon if he were available, only for the club to suspend him an hour later.

Saturday's pregame apology was the very least the $37-million closer could do after instigating a surreal scene Wednesday night in which Rodriguez was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend's father, Carlos Peña, in the Mets' family lounge. A police spokesman told reporters that Rodriguez "repeatedly hit him in the face and hit his head against a wall." He was charged with third-degree assault and second-degree harassment.

Reports in the New York media differ on what precipitated the alleged attack -- the New York Post reported Peña intervened when Rodriguez began a verbal tirade against his daughter; the New York Daily News quoted sources who claimed Peña told Rodriguez to "Man up, and play better" and that Peña insulted Rodriguez's mother -- but the end result was the same: a 53-year-old man taken from Citi Field in an ambulance and a closer spending the night in the stadium's holding pen.

That type of behavior is unacceptable anywhere, but especially intolerable where it happened: in the family lounge, witnessed by girlfriends, wives, parents and children of his teammates.

Before Saturday night's game, Rodriguez stood in a cramped interview room near the Mets clubhouse, clad in a team-logo t-shirt and without his trademark glasses. In what essentially amounted to a spoken statement, he apologized to the three principal owners by name, then gave a general apology to three other groups (fans, teammates and the front office) for the "embarrassment" that he caused, adding, "I'm looking forward to being a better person."

He did not publicly apologize to his girlfriend's father -- the alleged victim -- or his girlfriend. One can only hope those apologies were given privately.

Rodriguez also acknowledged that he would enter a program for anger management but couldn't speak about the ongoing legal issues.

In all he spoke for 54 seconds, which is exactly three times the number of words Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon contributed to the discourse on Thursday afternoon in a short statement.

"Ownership and the organization are very disappointed in Francisco's inappropriate behavior and we take this matter very seriously," Wilpon said in the team release.

After his comments, Rodriguez then retreated to the clubhouse where he spoke to a clubhouse attendant about his gear and probably hoped he could have a normal rest of the day. After the drama of the week -- which included moving out of his Long Island home after a judge issued a restraining order against him on behalf of his girlfriend -- K-Rod was probably most comfortable here. Later in the afternoon, he slunk back in his clubhouse chair, his right leg dangling over the armrest, and tapped away at his phone, the ballplayer's common pregame ritual.

"It's good to have him back," starter Mike Pelfrey said. "We all make mistakes. There are times in our life where our emotions get the best of us. The biggest thing is that we move on. It's definitely good to see him back, smiling and having a good time."

Manuel said he believed K-Rod would apologize to teammates individually, though none seemed to have received such an apology by the time the clubhouse closed to the media an hour before the first pitch.

Centerfielder Angel Pagan said after the game that K-Rod had "talked to some of the guys," though the closer himself declined to elaborate.

"That's something that's personal," Rodriguez said. "I don't think I have to share with you."

And not every Mets player felt he needed to receive such a personal admission.

"Maybe for some people whose families were in there and saw that, an apology might be appropriate for them," Pelfrey said. "My family wasn't in there, so he doesn't owe me anything."

The wife and children of shortstop Jose Reyes were among the reported witnesses to the incident, though Reyes said before the game he had not spoken with K-Rod.

"Not yet," Reyes said. "I didn't really talk to him. I said hello to him. I don't want to be in his way because some of the things right now in his head."

From a strictly baseball sense K-Rod's return is undoubtedly welcome for the Mets, whose offense has been so anemic that every run saved is precious. He's having a fine season, too, with 25 saves and a 2.20 ERA in 57 1/3 innings.

"We need him here," Reyes said. "He's our closer and the closer was not out there in the bullpen [the last two days], so it's good to see him back. Whatever problem he had, he put in the past. He's here to play baseball right now."

K-Rod was not missed during his two-game suspension. The Mets received complete-game shutouts from Johan Santana against the Rockies on Thursday and R.A. Dickey in the series-opener with the Phillies on Friday. They were New York's first consecutive wins in 42 games, dating back to June 22 and 23 victories over the Tigers. They were the first back-to-back wins against a National League opponent since they swept the Marlins in the first week of June.

But one has to wonder if the club -- which is eight games off the pace for the wild card and thus not nearly out of contention -- is really best served with such a combustible personality back so soon. If K-Rod is truly contrite, that's one thing, but he needs to know how short the leash is. One source told the New York Daily News that the Mets' front office had wanted to issue a longer suspension but that the union blocked any ban of more than two games.

After all, though this was the most severe, it was not the first example of Rodriguez's temper getting the best of him. Earlier this year K-Rod got into a heated exchange with bullpen coach Randy Niemann before entering a late May game against the Yankees. Last year K-Rod and former club vice president Tony Bernazard had a shouting match on the team bus. He also had a confrontation with then-Yankees pitcher Brian Bruney, with the two yelling back and forth before a game last season.

And so the Mets should have made Rodriguez be more accountable after one of those previous incidents. Better late than never, of course, but K-Rod now needs to be held to the standard he spoke of on Saturday about being a better person. The Mets still owe their closer at least $15 million after this season -- $11.5 million in 2011 and at least a $3.5 million buyout, if not the staggering $17.5 million option for 2012 -- and with the team out of the playoff race, it's time they started protecting their investment.

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