By Joe Lemire
April 13, 2012

NEW YORK -- For the first time in baseball history two men with contracts of at least $240 million opposed each other on the same ballfield.

The Angels' Albert Pujols and the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez have much in common on paper -- and more than just the paper bearing their signatures and promising them roughly a quarter-billion dollars.

Both are right-handed hitters with power who have achieved levels of baseball excellence matched by few in the game's storied past. They are two of only three players (along with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield) who have ever received a 10-year deal to play for a new team, both moving to one of the nation's two largest cities and bearing great expectations in doing so.

And one far more temporary and largely irrelevant comparison also held true: both entered this afternoon's meeting at Yankee Stadium with batting averages below their contracts. Pujols was hitting .217; Rodriguez was batting .174.

Such a start, however, usually isn't worth mentioning for the two premier hitters of the last decade. The season is young, and each had played only six games.

For Pujols, especially, such a small sample is basically irrelevant. He hasn't faced many American League pitchers. He started slowly last year and rallied resoundingly; his .983 OPS from July 9 through the end of the season ranked third in the NL. And, of course, Pujols is only 32. The first half of his contract won't be any issue.

Rodriguez, however, is four and a half years older than Pujols. A-Rod's offensive production has declined each year since he won the MVP in 2007. He played only 99 games last season and homered once every 23.3 at bats, his worst home-run rate since 1997 and only the second time that ratio was worse than once ever 17 at bats. The other season? The year before. (He homered once every 17.4 at bats in 2010.)

So when Rodriguez goes 2-for-20 after a two-hit Opening Day and has no home runs and no RBIs on the season, one is allowed to raise an eyebrow at least halfway.

And, likewise, for now one can return that eyebrow to its normal resting position after he broke out on Friday with a three-hit game that included his first home run of the season, as the Yankees shutout the Angels 5-0 behind a brilliant outing from starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda.

That home run off Ervin Santana to dead center field just so happened to be the 630th of his career, tying him with former Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr. for fifth on the all-time list.

"It definitely means I'm getting old, that's for sure," Rodriguez said.

Therein is the issue. At 36 -- and turning 37 in July -- A-Rod is certainly capable of superstar-level production. But with each year, his consistency and his certainty of reaching his high ceiling becomes more of a question. With this and five more seasons remaining on Rodriguez's megadeal, the Yankees obviously need steady production from their third baseman.

For now, what's reassuring to the Yankees is that Rodriguez reported no residual soreness at the conclusion of last week's three-game series on the turf in Tampa Bay. So, too, was manager Joe Girardi's assessment of Rodriguez's big day.

Said Girardi, "Do I see a lot of things different? Not really. Eventually the guy was going to hit."

In other words, A-Rod didn't need to overhaul what he was doing. He was soon going to produce with the swing he had.

"I think for me it's all about health and feeling good," Rodriguez said. "There's no question in my mind that if I'm healthy and have my legs under me, I can play at a high level."

He even stole a base on Friday, his second of the season, not that he's any threat to continue moving up the batting order -- he moved from fourth to third -- toward the leadoff spot.

"If you think that's a story, wait till I take over [Derek] Jeter's spot in the lineup," Rodriguez joked with reporters before the game. "That'd be the real story."

A real story would be a demotion down the order, as happened in 2006 when he batted eighth in a playoff game. Friday's flip-flop of A-Rod and Robinson Cano was all about separating the latter from Curtis Granderson in the lineup, so that an opponent can't bring in one lefty reliever to face both without going through Rodriguez in between.

Girardi was careful to clarify that point before the game.

"Sometimes if it's a lack of production you move somebody down,'' Girardi said. "It really has nothing to do with that. It's making it more difficult on the other clubs.''

The other story in the offing for Rodriguez is his pursuit of the four men ahead of him on the career home run list: Willie Mays (660), Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (763). Rodriguez will receive a $6 million bonus for matching each, not to mention another $6 million for passing Bonds, but the Yankees will probably be happy to pay those incentives because of what it means to his contributions to the club.

If Rodriguez is chasing Mays -- who has a 30-homer lead -- later this year, then the Yankees will be thrilled.

Rodriguez said tying Griffey, his friend and mentor, was meaningful, but he said he otherwise wasn't thinking about his place on the home run leaderboard.

"I don't allow myself to be a fan of what I do," he said. "I'm trying to be one of the guys and help the team win."

Rodriguez added that he's simply trying to take a "blue-collar approach with [my] God-given talent."

Until he gets closer to such baseball luminaries, Rodriguez has ceded the spotlight. Notably, the only two players to hold pregame press conferences before the Yankees' home opener were Jeter, the captain, and Pujols, an opponent.

"I'm actually just enjoying laying in the weeds and letting other players get the attention and focus, so I can just go about my business," Rodriguez said. "It's kind of a new role."

Actually, it'd be a completely foreign role. But as long as Rodriguez stays healthy enough and hits well enough, he won't be the big story. And -- for now -- that's a good thing for the Yankees.

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