A-Rod ban leaves Hal with choice

NEW YORK -- All along, it has been widely assumed that when Judgment Day came, Alex Rodriguez would have some heavy thinking to do and some important decisions to make.

But it turns out that for A-Rod, the decisions are easy. He has to fight the 2014 ban handed down Saturday by arbitrator Fredric Horowitz, because not even the third baseman's legal team can cost him the $25 million he will lose if he doesn't play at all this season.

And he has to appear at spring training with his Yankees teammates on Feb. 19, because what if, against all odds, a federal judge issues an injunction preventing baseball from enforcing the ban? A guy's got to be ready to play, doesn't he?

And his camp has already told me that no matter what happens this spring, Alex Rodriguez fully intends to resume his baseball career in 2015, and presumably, for the remainder of his Yankee contract, which runs through 2017.

In truth, the guy who has some serious soul-searching and decision-making to do is not Alex Rodriguez.

It is Hal Steinbrenner, the man who signed off on the $275 million contract that is now choking his payroll and his roster, the man who OK'd a deal with the devil and whose bill has now come due.

So what does Steinbrenner do? Swallow hard, write a check for $61 million made out to Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, and bid him farewell?

Or swallow harder, do nothing, and watch A-Rod turn his team's training camp into a circus more raucous than anything P.T. Barnum could have dreamed up?

The jury is still out on whether A-Rod would be within his rights to attend spring training. Team A-Rod says it is "100 percent certain'' their man is free to suit up and play this spring. A Yankees team source I spoke with said he believed there was nothing in the CBA that would preclude it. Later, it was reported that the Yankees and MLB executives would meet next week to try to figure out a way to bar A-Rod from turning George Steinbrenner Field into Cirque du Soleil next month.

But one thing is clear: Horowitz's decision may have closed a chapter, but it certainly did not end this story.

There are still showdowns coming between the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez, including, possibly, a lawsuit against the team alleging conspiratorial ties with MLB to run him out of the game.

In the meantime, he remains a paid employee of the team, with certain collectively bargained rights and, ostensibly, a powerful union behind him.

So now, it is Steinbrenner's turn to agonize over what to do next.

Forget about a buyout. There's no reason in the world for A-Rod to settle for a dollar less than his contract calls for, and judging by the state of relations between him and his team, no conceivable reason why he would even consider it.

As for the Yankees trying to reason with A-Rod to stay away from Tampa for the good of the team, see the previous paragraph. Over the past few months, both the Yankees and A-Rod have made their feelings clear about one another. Neither is about to do the other any favors.

So Steinbrenner's $61 million is as good as gone. Now, it is up to him to decide if A-Rod should go with it.

As a journalist, I hesitate to recommend that he cut Rodriguez, for several reasons.

First of all, it's easy to be profligate with another guy's money. Sixty-one million bucks is enough cabbage to choke even a Steinbrenner.

For another, I kind of welcome the insanity that having A-Rod in training camp would bring, at least for a week or so next month, and if you've ever whiled away the hours for seven weeks in a big-league training camp, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

But most importantly, even though I fully understand exactly what Alex Rodriguez is, I kind of like the guy, in spite of himself. He's a lot easier to take if you know the player and you know the game, and you know what to expect. He's one of the rare modern athletes who might actually say something interesting, or crazy, or newsworthy.

And believe it or not, he is absolutely the best guy to talk baseball with in the Yankees clubhouse, because for all his ignorance on just about every other subject, he knows his game inside and out, loves it, and loves to talk about it. You can learn more about baseball by talking to Alex Rodriguez for a half-hour than you can by watching every inning of an entire season.

These, of course, are not Steinbrenner's concerns.

His worry is fielding a competitive -- he likes to say "championship-caliber" -- baseball team, and his quandary is, must that necessarily include Alex Rodriguez?

The on-field performance says no, and the off-field distractions are certainly more trouble than the player is worth.

Those are both big problems. The question is, are they problems worth spending $61 million to rectify?

The hard reality is that no matter what you think of A-Rod, the Yankees brought this situation upon themselves, purely out of greed. They must have suspected that at some point, Rodriguez would get exposed as a steroid user; his numbers were simply too good to be true.

Instead, they chose to see records being broken in a Yankees uniform, seats being filled, merchandise moved, and money shoveled in. That is why the Steinbrenner Bros. chose to publicly undermine their own GM, who had vowed he would not negotiate with A-Rod if he opted out of his contract in 2007. It is why they chose to bid against themselves in giving him a raise from his original 10-year, $252 million contract, which was suddenly characterized as inadequate. It is why they allowed five home run clauses, at $6 million a pop, to be built in on top of the $275 million they were guaranteeing him.

And that is why Alex Rodriguez is now vowing to be back in a Yankees uniform, at any cost.

So now, Steinbrenner has two choices, both of them tough to swallow.

He can do nothing, and ensure having Rodriguez to kick around, and vice versa, for the next four years.

Or he can do something that may bruise his wallet but will certainly help his team -- that is, cut A-Rod loose. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but sometime between now and Feb. 19.

Either way, Steinbrenner is parting with that $61 million.

Now, he must decide if it's time to part with Alex Rodriguez, as well.