By Ben Reiter
May 08, 2009

BALTIMORE -- "I miss simply being a baseball player," Alex Rodriguez said during his press conference on Feb. 17 in Tampa, during which he purported to "come clean" about the discovery first reported by SI's Selena Roberts and David Epstein that he was, at least at one time, a user of steroids. It was the only genuinely believable thing he said that day -- a granule of truth, mixed in with the fibs and the obfuscations and the stammering explanations and the 32-second silence in which he tried his best to produce even a single tear.

No one knew at the time that Rodriguez wouldn't be able take the field for the Yankees for nearly three months, due to an injured right hip that required surgery on March 9. But on Friday evening in Baltimore, barring a last-minute setback or a resumption of the rain that has wreaked havoc on baseball in the Northeast for much of the past week, Rodriguez will finally get his wish: He will, once again, play third base for the New York Yankees. Things won't ever be the same as they were before this tumultuous off-season, for him or for his teammates or for his (mostly former) fans. And yet, in many ways, A-Rod's return couldn't come at a better time.

While Thursday's revelation that Manny Ramirez has been suspended for 50 games for using the drug HCG certainly won't allow A-Rod to slip back into the majors unnoticed -- the fans at Oriole Park at Camden Yards will be quite a bit more vociferous than usual, to put it mildly -- it was one of the few bits of news with the power to draw some of the klieg-lights away from Baltimore on Friday night. That Rodriguez's return will now come under the cover of Manny is one of the few breaks that he has received in recent months, and might lead the conspiracy theorists among us to wonder if Scott Boras (who represents both Rodriguez and Ramirez) might have, some how, some way, had a hand in engineering the timing on this.

The timing of A-Rod's return seems even more fortuitous for the stumbling Yankees, who are 13-15 and the losers of five straight, and who need his bat, and need it now. "We think it's great," manager Joe Girardi said on Thursday. "It's great to have your No. 4 hitter come back. In a sense it's like we made a huge trade. We didn't have him the first five weeks, so we're all very excited." The Yankees, quite simply, don't seem to be working without Rodriguez in the heart of their lineup, and not just because the trio of underwhelming players who have thus far replaced him -- Cody Ransom, Angel Berroa and Ramiro Pena -- have combined to hit .202, with no home runs.

While Rodriguez certainly constitutes an important piece to reinsert into the Yankees' lineup -- and he will offer some protection to fellow Boras client Mark Teixeira, who's hitting .198 so far -- it would be foolish to view him as a savior, as the only thing the Yankees need to go on an extended tear. First, the Yanks can't be sure of exactly what they're getting back: Even though he's only two years into his remarkable contract, Rodriguez is a 33-year-old who hasn't played in a big league game in seven months, who still has something of a bum hip (the big news in New York only days ago was that Rodriguez painlessly slid into second base during a rehab game -- as if one successful slide indicates that a player is ready to strap an entire team to his back), and whose history of PED use remains shady. Second, his offensive impact will be mitigated by the fact that Jorge Posada recently went on the DL with a hamstring strain and could miss five weeks, maybe more. Posada's replacement with Kevin Cash -- as backup Jose Molina also just hit the DL -- means that the Yanks' offense will field at least two distinctly below-average players at all times, just as it did with the Ransom/Berroa/Pena smorgasbord at third base.

The Yankees have publicly expressed confidence that they'll be getting back the Rodriguez of old, and that he'll make a real difference for them -- "He's A-Rod," Teixeira said on Thursday, "he's going to put up MVP numbers every single year" -- but what else can they say? They've got a billion-and-a-half dollar new stadium that they're struggling to fill, and a $200 million dollar roster with which they can't so far win, and they have to believe in the idea that Rodriguez will be the difference-maker. On Friday night we'll have our first chance to see whether that's going to prove true.

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