KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The best first basemen, like the best umpires, are the ones you hardly notice. They're not supposed to interest you, excite you, or make you nervous. If they're doing their jobs correctly, you'd barely even know they were out there.
On this day, however, a first baseman for the New York Yankees was definitely the center of attention. For one particular play, he was an object of fascination because this first baseman was Alex Rodriguez, and in his 21st season in the big leagues, was about to attempt something he had never done before: Range to his right, field a ground ball, pivot and flip the baseball with just enough arc to lead his pitcher to first base.
A routine play for just about any first baseman. For A-Rod, a bit of an adventure, of course, because isn't everything?
Although his 39-1/2 year old legs carried him to the baseball, the grounder off the bat of Evan Gattis popped up and out of the unfamiliar leather appendage on A-Rod's left hand. For a moment it looked as if the experiment would end in utter humiliation and failure. Or at the very least, an infield hit.
But just as quickly, the ball settled back into the glove, and using those great hands that made him a standout shortstop and a better-than-good third baseman for more than two decades, A-Rod turned, flipped the ball to lead Nathan Eovaldi to the bag, and the out was made.
"That was a very uncomfortable play, that’s for sure,'' Rodriguez said. "Kind of an in-between hop for a righthander. I’m just glad we got a guy out. I felt like a quarterback hitting my tight end on the run. I’ve never done that before.''
That was as dramatic as it got for him at first base, the second of three chances. The other two were routine groundouts, although it did appear from the pressbox as if he might have pulled his foot off the bag a tick too soon on the first one, and first base umpire Greg Gibson gave it a good, hard look before signaling the out.
"It felt good. It was fun,'' Rodriguez said after his abbreviated 3-1/2 inning appearance. "It was quite interesting, after 20 years to see the game through a totally different lens. It was pretty cool.''
He also said he believed that if necessary, he could play the position in a real game. "I came up watching and admiring Keith Hernandez,'' he said, "so I tried to emulate one of my heroes growing up.''
Let's not get carried away here. There are still so many things Rodriguez has not done at first base, either in practice or in a practice game, which is what spring training is. He was never asked to turn a 3-6-3 double play, nor, thanks to Eovaldi's effectiveness (4 2/3 IP, 3 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 5 Ks), did he ever have to hold on a runner or position himself to cut off a relay throw. And, perhaps surprisingly, no Houston Astros player thought to test him with a bunt.
"If they would have tested me they probably would have done very well today,'' he said, rather modestly.
If nothing else, A-Rod proved he could play the most basic kind of first base at a competent level. As Girardi admitted, using him out there in a real game would be a sign that something had gone very, very wrong in Yankeeland. "It’s not something we’re looking to do, it’s if something happens to one of our other guys,'' Girardi said. "I would feel comfortable throwing him out there. I think he can handle it just fine.''
Earlier in the day, the prospect loomed like a possibility when word came that Mark Teixeira had left a minor-league game after being hit in the right knee with a pitch. But Girardi assured all that Tex had merely suffered a bruise, treatable not with a scalpel but an icepack, and that he would be just fine by Wednesday, the next time he is scheduled to play.
Still, it must be comforting to know that A-Rod is teachable at first. Really, it is hardly surprising, since he had already made the transition from shortstop to third base when he joined the Yankees 10 years ago. Besides, as he said to me when the great experiment was first floated at the beginning of spring training, "If you've played shortstop in this league, you can play anywhere on the field.''
I didn't bother asking him if he could pitch or catch, but I got the idea. First base would be easy.
In fact, this entire spring has been easy for A-Rod, which is a bit surprising considering he hasn't played in a real game since September 2013 and his 40th birthday is less than four months away. He had another hit in Sunday's 7-0 win over the Astros at Osceola County Stadium, raising his spring training average to .324. Only one Yankee, Chase Headley, has more hits than Rodriguez (16 to 12), and the two are tied for the team lead in home runs with 3.
As much as many people would have liked to see him disappear after his 162-game suspension for a PED violation and subsequent grievance against baseball and the Yankees -- the bitterness over which still lingers in his own team's front office -- there's just no getting rid of Alex Rodriguez. He has gone from the man without a country in January to, probably, the Yankees' full-time DH when the season opens on April 6. He has yet to make a misstep, either on the field, with the media, or so far as we know, in the clubhouse, and it's really hard to conceive of how this spring could possibly have gone any better for him.
"I’m just happy to be playing baseball,'' he said. "I’m here to play baseball, I’m here to do exactly what my bosses want me to do, and I just want to help the team win. I’ll tell you that I’m a lot more happy, fortunate, and grateful than I was twelve months ago.''
Not only that. He now owns a first baseman's glove, and believe it or not, he knows how to use it.