A rejuvenated Alex Rodriguez turns back time

NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez has been booed, belittled, disparaged and discounted for so long, he can barely remember what it's like to feel wanted or remotely close to what a superstar is supposed to feel like. Based on the magazine profiles that have provided a window into his soul, this is a fundamental need that cuts to the core of his very A-Rod-ness.

So he had to be churning with emotion on a throwback Thursday night in the Bronx. After launching a Chris Tillman changeup over the center-field fence to pass Willie Mays on MLB's career home run list with No. 661, Rodriguez descended the steps to the dugout and received a series of jubilant high-fives from his New York teammates. And then, as the crowd cheered wildly, manager Joe Girardi and the other Yankees urged him to respond and he quickly ascended the steps for a curtain call.

He's down, then up. Talk about a fitting late-career snapshot for a 39-year-old, disgraced, could-have-been Hall of Famer.

"It's been a long time,'' said Rodriguez, whose homer provided the winning run in a 4-3 Yankees victory. "I actually thought the days of curtain calls for me were long gone. A year ago today, I never thought I would ever get a curtain call or be hitting in the middle of the lineup for the New York Yankees.

"I've said all along: The league, the Yankees, the fans -- nobody owes me anything. I'm just so grateful to be playing baseball.''

Rodriguez has mucked up his legacy to such a monumental degree, a lot of fans have moved beyond the knee-jerk anger reflex of seeing him pass a brand-name baseball legend -- the great Willie Mays -- and will respond with a combination of disinterest, bemusement and milestone fatigue over his latest achievement. He's never going to make it to Cooperstown, no matter how long he hangs around or how many homers he hits, so why invest the emotional capital in cheering for him to fail?

For every Yankees fan who revels in watching Rodriguez turn back time, there's a corresponding Red Sox fan who'll always loathe him or a baseball skeptic who'll question whether he's clean and PED-free. For that lingering perception, Rodriguez has only himself to blame.

He's long past the point of reinventing himself. But that doesn't mean Rodriguez can't enjoy this latest run, hitting homers, slugging .532 and playing a central role for a Yankees team that's giving the impression it might have some staying power in a jumbled American League East.

Think back to February, and the same preordained narrative was making the rounds: The Yankees were going to send him on so many bus trips to Fort Myers and Port Charlotte, they'd antagonize him to the point of quitting. Now he's still plugging away and raking like the A-Rod of old while the Yankees stand firm in their refusal to pay him a $6 million milestone-marking bonus. Amid talk of a grievance and an ugly dispute rooted in economics, Rodriguez shrugs and tries to stay above the fray.

The Yankees, who were supposed to be too old and decrepit to end their streak of two straight playoff-free seasons, are 18-11 and leading the division by three games. And A-Rod is proving his worth the old-fashioned way -- by gradually moving up the batting order. On Opening Day against Toronto, Carlos Beltran hit third and A-Rod batted seventh. A month into the season, Beltran is batting .187 and hitting sixth, and a rejuvenated A-Rod is hitting third.

Naturally, the more A-Rod hits, the more Yankees fans suffer selective memory loss over his transgressions. Isn't that always the way?

"There have been other guys who went through suspensions and troubles and did things that turned the fans off at times,'' Girardi said. "When you're productive, you kind of re-earn their respect and they pull for you. That's the bottom line -- not just in our sport, but in all sports. How Alex would be received really came down to how productive he was going to be. So far, he's done a really good job.''

Rodriguez, who seemed so lawyered up and judgment-impaired during his Biogenesis fight, is saying all the right things now. Late Thursday night, he praised Mays as a true baseball original, talked wistfully about his father, and said he would like to personally go out and thank every Yankees fan who's supported him this season when he needed it most. The new, humbled, reflective A-Rod certainly seems to be playing well in the New York clubhouse.

"I know there are a lot of questions surrounding it, but it's still 661 home runs,'' outfielder Brett Gardner said. "To see how hard Alex works every day and how much he loves to win and compete, I'm really happy for him.''

How long this feel-good vibe lasts remains to be seen. Derek Jeter got the reverence on his way out of New York, Mariano Rivera got the love, and A-Rod will get ... who knows what? He has squandered his legacy and burned his bridges, but the man always finds a way to make things entertaining. Give him that.