NEW YORK -- It wasn't so long ago that Alex Rodriguez was leaning toward joining the Dominican Republic's squad in the World Baseball Classic. Then came the beginning of his PR nightmare -- he was abandoning not just Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz, but Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter, too, choosing to sit out the tournament altogether.
That was followed by yet another flip-flop, reported by The New York Times: Not only had A-Rod changed his mind, he was changing teams, this time joining the U.S. roster.
To all this, Rodriguez asks for a moment of clarity: He says he's still not playing.
The third baseman insists the tidal wave of headlines was not only premature, but entirely false. He's saying no to Dominicans, no to the Americans and better-luck-next-time to the Players Association, which his handlers believe is responsible for prematurely leaking the story.
"When Alex said he was staying out, he meant it," is how a person close to the third baseman put it. A-Rod intends to "discuss" the matter with union officials this week, as his agent, Scott Boras, promised, but Rodriguez already has told his inner circle, as well as Yankees officials, that he's focusing on spring training instead of international play.
That decision will obviously satisfy George Steinbrenner, who's openly opposed to the WBC and has effectively blocked Jorge Posada, Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. The Yankees' indirect pressure has additionally pressured Hideki Matsui into withdrawing from the Japanese team.
And Mariano Rivera is speaking of cutting his ties with the Panamanian squad, given its underdog status against other Latin American and Caribbean teams.
Of course, owners and GMs can't actually prohibit anyone from representing his country. Only the commissioner's office can do so, after a team files an appeal based on the likelihood of injury. As well, the union has only peer-pressure leverage and no contractual way to enforce participation.
But the stakes are obviously high, as the association sees the WBC as a way to grow the game and increase future revenue streams for its constituents.
It makes perfect sense -- in theory. But getting the players to go full bore in spring training might not be so easy, and clearly frustrated union chief Gene Orza when he learned that Matsui was bowing out.
"You only hope the player who says no has a full understanding of the tournament and the consequences of his non-participation," Orza told The Times, "especially when it's a player who wouldn't be here and who wouldn't have the new contract he has but for the association."
It's unclear what "consequences" Orza was referring to other than a less-than-enthusiastic response from fans. Already, FOX has passed on the chance to broadcast the tournament, and the games themselves will coincide (and compete) with the NCAA Tournament.
Not even the Latin squads, which appear to be the most enthusiastic participants, are immune to defection. There's word in Met circles that Martinez's damaged right toe -- still sore enough to require a specially constructed shoe for 2006 -- isn't all that serious. Martinez, however, might use the injury as a way out of pitching for the Dominican team.
Martinez, no dummy, will apparently let the Mets act as the heavies while claiming he'd love to lead the Dominicans to victory. But Pedro has privately told friends he prefers to go slowly in March while rebuilding his arm strength. Given that Martinez's fastball had shrunk to 86 mph last September, the Mets are more than willing to take the heat for him.
The fact that Martinez has to hide behind his owners is proof of the intense national pressure being applied to Dominican stars - not just to participate in the WBC, but to defeat the United States. That's the reason A-Rod initially withdrew.
Although he was born in New York, is an American citizen and has lived his entire adult life in the U.S., Rodriguez was nevertheless leaned on by his entire Dominican network, including his mother and her family, all urging him to switch allegiances.
"Everyone was in his face; it was unreal," said one member of his camp. "After a while, it got to be so overwhelming Alex had to back off."
Rodriguez's absence, besides wounding the Dominican squad, is more damaging to the tournament's marketing quotient in this country. That might explain why the union jump-started the whispering campaign that A-Rod was coming back, this time to play side by side with Jeter. How could he say no when everyone -- newspapers, TV, the Internet -- had already reported that baseball's best all-around player would be at third base for the U.S. team?
The trouble was that no one spoke directly to Rodriguez, handlers say, a move they say will only solidify his decision to stick with the Yankees in spring training. When a Yankee official was asked if he was pleased by A-Rod's decision, he merely raised his eyebrows as if to ask: Are you kidding?
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.