Yankees Magazine: Final days

Relishing every moment, Alex Rodriguez closes the book on his pinstriped playing career

Yankees Magazine: Final days

Alex Rodriguez stood by himself in the tiny visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park.

It was 4:13 in the afternoon, and only a few of his teammates had arrived at the ballpark by the time Rodriguez hung up his blue jeans and white polo shirt and put on a pair of road gray baseball pants and a blue batting practice jersey.

"I'm in a rush to get out there," Rodriguez said as he hustled past a group of reporters cramped into a small space between the clubhouse doors and the couches in the middle of the room. "I want to take in every second of the time I have left on the field."

When he got to the dugout, Rodriguez grabbed a seat on the wooden bench and gazed out toward the field. The Boston Red Sox's batting practice was winding down on this humid Wednesday afternoon in Beantown, and over the next half hour, most of Rodriguez's teammates would jog out to the batting cages or to somewhere on the field. While he was in a rush to get into his uniform and make his way to the dugout, A-Rod was now content.

For Rodriguez, the midweek series against his team's archrival was as sentimental as any he had ever played in. Only days before, in an emotional press conference at Yankee Stadium, the veteran of 22 Major League seasons told the world that he would be playing his last game in pinstripes at the end of the week. Following the Yankees' home game on Aug. 12, the team would be unconditionally releasing the 41-year-old with plans to bring him back into the fold as a special advisor and instructor next season.

"It hit me harder today than it did yesterday," he said from the dugout. "When the clock is ticking on the one thing you've done your whole life, you want time to stand still. But that's not how it works."

Rodriguez walked to the bat rack in the inside part of the dugout, picked up two bats and ran onto the field. After stretching for a few minutes, Rodriguez's first turn in the cage came. His first two swings resulted in ground balls that were scooped up before they could leave the infield. Then he launched a line drive that smacked up against Fenway Park's famed Green Monster in left field. He took a few more swings before stepping out of the cage for Gary Sanchez, the team's up-and-coming 23-year-old catcher.

Moments later, Rodriguez stepped back into the cage and hit another line drive off the Monster. He hit the next eight pitches over the 37-foot wall, the last of which hit a sign several feet above the top.

Rodriguez's next turn was just as impressive. He launched pitch after pitch out of the park. Before he was done, A-Rod hit a line drive that almost reached the Fenway Park scoreboard in left-center field. Instead, it crashed into a ladder hanging a few feet below it. The nearly 500-foot blast caught the attention of most of the reporters on the field, all of whom were closely watching A-Rod's every move.

"I'm down to my last 72 hours as a player," Rodriguez said when he returned to the dugout to get his mitt. "I'm going to swing the bat hard, and I'm going to enjoy every pitch I hit out of here, even if they're only in batting practice."

As batting practice came to an end, A-Rod made his way to left field, where he played catch with the team's closer, Dellin Betances, for a few minutes. Once his arm was loose, Rodriguez, who played third base for his first 10 seasons in pinstripes, stopped at the hot corner.

Even though he had only played third base for a handful of games over the last two seasons, during which time he served as the Yankees' designated hitter, the smile on A-Rod's face indicated how much he enjoyed playing the field. Sure, it was only practice, but Rodriguez fielded each of the 10 ground balls that third base coach Joe Espada hit at him with the same intensity and vigor as he did during the most important games.

"I wanted to play third base one more time this week," Rodriguez said as he walked off the diamond. "But I was told that it's not in the cards. I figured that this would be my only chance to play third base here at Fenway, so I wanted to make the most of it."

With dark clouds overhead, A-Rod approached the seats just beyond the visitors' dugout, where a few hundred fans, many of whom were wearing Yankees apparel, eagerly awaited his arrival. When he got there, two wheelbarrows were sitting on the dirt right in front of the seats. Rodriguez quickly moved both so that he could get to the waist-high wall that separated the fans from the field.

For more than 20 minutes, the 14-time American League All-Star signed everything that was handed to him. He posed for as many photos as he could, and he welcomed all of the comments that came his way.

As he handed a photo back to a young woman, another fan began to chant, "We want A-Rod." Rodriguez, who was told by Yankees Manager Joe Girardi that he would not be in the team's starting lineup until his second-to-last game, had heard the same chant the night before, during the series opener, from fans in the Fenway Park seats. In the late innings, Red Sox supporters pleaded for Girardi to give Rodriguez an at-bat.

Fully mindful that the Fenway faithful wanted him on the field so that they could jeer him, especially if he struck out, A-Rod had only nice things to say.

"I love the fans here," said Rodriguez, who nearly joined the Red Sox in December 2003. "They are so passionate about their team, and they know the game so well. I know they like to boo me, but I'm OK with that. I love the atmosphere in this ballpark, especially when I come up to the plate."

As the rain began to come down, A-Rod retreated to the dugout. By this time, every other player was already in the clubhouse, but Rodriguez was in no rush to go any farther from the field than the dugout.

For Rodriguez, the first overall pick in the 1993 Draft, the moments before the game in Boston brought back memories of his first Big League game, which also took place in Fenway Park.

"I remember sitting right here all those years ago," Rodriguez said from the dugout. "I was 18 years old, and I had just gotten called up by the Mariners and met the team in Boston. The one thing I remember is how nervous I was. I was sitting here, and my knees were actually shaking. I was only a year removed from my high school graduation, and I was about to play in a Major League game in front of a packed house at Fenway Park. That was a life-changing event."

Rodriguez got over his nerves on that July evening in 1994, and although he didn't collect a hit in his Major League debut, he singled twice the next night.

 The Mariners returned to Fenway Park a few weeks later, and this time around, they were slated to face perennial All-Star Roger Clemens.

"Even though I had a few weeks of Big League experience under my belt, the thought of getting into the batter's box against Roger was scary," Rodriguez said. "I had never felt that way about facing a pitcher before that or since."

In that late-July game, A-Rod faced Clemens three times, going 0-for-2 with a sacrifice fly.

By the time he was 20 years old, Rodriguez was not only an everyday player for the Mariners, but he was also one of the game's best. In 1996, he won the American League batting title with a .358 average while also hitting 36 home runs. Over the next four seasons, A-Rod continued to put up huge numbers. Between 1998 and 2003, he hit at least 41 home runs each season, including a career-high 57 in 2002 with the Texas Rangers, the team he signed a record free-agent contract with after seven seasons in Seattle.

After winning his first of three AL MVP Awards in 2003, but not getting close to reaching the postseason with Texas, Rodriguez lobbied to be traded. Looking to free up cash to make improvements at other positions, the Rangers engaged a few teams in conversations about Rodriguez. The Rangers completed a deal with the Red Sox that was contingent on A-Rod taking a pay cut. The star shortstop agreed to do so, but the Major League Baseball Players Association nixed the pay cut and the trade.

Less than a month later, Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone, who had sunk the Red Sox the previous October by hitting a game-winning home run in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, injured his left knee in a game of pickup basketball. Without a formidable option at third base, the Yankees inquired about A-Rod's availability and -- because Derek Jeter was firmly planted at shortstop in the Bronx -- his willingness to move to third base.

With a desire to join a contending team, A-Rod agreed to the position change, and a trade that sent second baseman Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later to Texas was completed and approved.

In his first season with the Yankees, Rodriguez batted .286 and hit 36 home runs, numbers that would have been great for just about any other player, but were less than satisfactory for Rodriguez.

A-Rod's first Yankees hit

"I had never dealt with expectations as big as the ones that were on me when I got to New York," Rodriguez said. "It was a big adjustment, and it took some time to get used to."

It didn't take A-Rod long, however, to get acclimated with the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. In a late-July series at Fenway Park, Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo plunked A-Rod with a pitch to the elbow. The third baseman quickly confronted the pitcher and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who stepped in front of A-Rod. Within seconds, punches were thrown and an all-out brawl stopped the game for about 20 minutes.

"I keep thinking about some of those epic battles we had up here against the Red Sox in my first few years with the Yankees," Rodriguez said. "Those battles were like none I had ever been a part of on the baseball diamond. I'm lucky to have played in them."

Rodriguez returned to form in 2005, batting .321 with 48 home runs and winning his second AL MVP Award.

Two seasons later, Rodriguez won his third and final AL MVP Award in what was his finest regular season in pinstripes. He led the league with 54 home runs and 156 RBI while batting .314 in 2007.

Rodriguez's 2009 campaign began in May, following a lengthy recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip. He heated up fast upon his return to action, though, homering in his first at-bat of the season in a game against Baltimore at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He finished the season with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

That postseason would mark the pinnacle of A-Rod's career.

After struggling in previous Octobers, A-Rod was never better than he was during the Yankees' 2009 postseason run, batting .365 with six home runs and 18 RBI. During a nine-day stretch, Rodriguez hit three game-tying home runs in the seventh inning or later, two of which came in the ninth inning or later, including an opposite-field blast against Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan in Game 2 of the AL Division Series.

"The Joe Nathan home run will always stick out in my mind," Rodriguez said. "He was so hard to hit that year, and it seemed like he never blew a save. More people ask me about that home run than just about any other."

With the Yankees clinging to a 2-games-to-1 lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series, A-Rod came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with the game tied, two men on and two outs. Facing Phillies closer Brad Lidge, Rodriguez hit a double to left field, plating the go-ahead run. The Yankees tacked on two more runs, and Mariano Rivera closed out the Phillies in the bottom of the frame.

"As I was walking to the plate, I knew that was the biggest at-bat of my life," Rodriguez said. "That's why we all play the game, for a chance to win the World Series. Even though we had to win one more game after that, I felt like the World Series was over when I was standing out there on second base."

Three nights later at Yankee Stadium, A-Rod captured his only World Series title.

"I thought about winning that championship a lot today," Rodriguez said. "I keep flashing back to that night. It's nice to think about."

The seasons that followed were met with more controversy than success for Rodriguez. He was suspended for the entire 2014 season for violations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. (Previously, he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during his time with Texas.)

Determined to make a comeback in 2015, A-Rod returned to the team and, in his age-39 season, posted his best numbers in years, hitting 33 home runs and driving in 86 runs. Rodriguez also collected the 3,000th hit of his career, on an opposite-field home run off Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander.

Rodriguez was unable to capture the same magic this season, struggling to keep his batting average above .200 and ultimately finding himself on the bench more than he was in the lineup.

Despite not playing the way he had hoped in 2016 and leaving the Yankees four home runs short of reaching 700 for his career, Rodriguez will long be remembered as one of the most statistically accomplished baseball players in the history of the game.

His 696 career home runs rank fourth all time, trailing only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, and his 25 grand slams are the most in history. Additionally, according to Elias Sports Bureau, A-Rod ranks second on baseball's all-time list with 2,086 RBI, trailing only Aaron, and his 3,115 hits are good for 19th in history. Rodriguez also hit at least 30 home runs and collected 100 or more RBI in 14 seasons, a feat that no other player ever accomplished.

"I have taken the approach this week of appreciating having been able to play for so many years," he said. "So many people had to give me an opportunity to play, starting with [former Seattle manager] Lou Piniella when I was an 18-year-old coming up with the Mariners. I never looked at playing baseball as a birthright. It's something that I'm blessed to have been able to do. I've really focused on the things I've accomplished as opposed to the things I haven't been able to do."

With the temperature still hovering around 80 degrees, Rodriguez's third-to-last game got underway. While he didn't start, he did pinch-hit in the seventh inning.

When he walked out to the on-deck circle, the crowd serenaded him with loud boos. Rodriguez hit a fly ball to deep right field, which advanced Gary Sanchez to third base and contributed to his team's victory, and as he ran back to the dugout, the crowd again booed him.

Rodriguez came to the ballpark the next day knowing that he would be in the lineup. He again crushed one baseball after another during batting practice, and then did something he always wanted to do in Fenway Park, something he would later call a "bucket-list thing."

As batting practice was finishing up, Rodriguez walked out to left field and through a door that led to the inside of the Green Monster. Once inside, he posed for photos with a metal No. 13 sign used for the manual scoreboard on the wall.

A-Rod's Fenway finale with Yanks

In that night's game, A-Rod came to the plate four times. He didn't collect a hit, but in his last at-bat, he hit a dribbler that brought Brett Gardner home and advanced two other runners.

"That wasn't how I envisioned my last at-bat at Fenway," A-Rod said after the game. "But at least I contributed a little bit to an important win."

Following the game, the Yankees flew back to New York for the start of a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays that would include A-Rod's final appearance.

Rodriguez arrived at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 12 for his last game as a Yankees player a few minutes before 4 p.m. If it was even possible, the air in the Bronx was more humid than it had been in Boston the night before. After changing into his batting practice gear for the last time, Rodriguez walked from the home clubhouse to the Yankee Stadium press conference room to answer questions from the media.

"You know, when you start playing baseball as a little boy, you don't think about the end very often," Rodriguez said. "It wasn't until I sat down with Hal [Steinbrenner] last Wednesday that I thought it could be a reality. I've often said that baseball has a funny way of tapping you on the shoulder when you least expect it and telling you that it's the end. I'm at peace, and I'm really excited. This is a happy day for me and for my family."

As the press conference neared its conclusion, a humble Rodriguez talked about his expectations for the night.

"I made contact three times last night," he said. "For me, with the way things have been going, that's a great night. So if I can put the ball in play a few times tonight, and [Rays starting pitcher] Chris Archer takes it easy on the old man, that would be cool."

Following the press conference, Rodriguez retreated to the clubhouse, where he spent a few quiet minutes alone at his locker before going out for batting practice. But this time around, there was a line of journalists surrounding the area in front of the home dugout, so many people that team security officials had to clear a path for A-Rod to run onto the field.

During three rounds of batting practice, Rodriguez hit nine baseballs into the seats and then signed a few autographs for fans next to the dugout before going back to the clubhouse to put on the pinstripes for the last time.

At 6:55 p.m., Rodriguez came back to the dugout, this time with his mother, his two young daughters and his siblings for a special pregame ceremony in which the team honored him.

With rain seconds away, the ceremony kicked off with a video tribute highlighting A-Rod's many accomplishments on the field. Rodriguez's immediate family members were then introduced and escorted to the area near home plate where he stood.

As Yankees managing general partner/co-chairperson Hal Steinbrenner and his wife, Christina, presented Rodriguez with a framed jersey and general partner/vice chairperson Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal gave him a signed base, the skies opened up. A loud clap of thunder shook the Stadium and sheets of rain forced the group into the dugout.

The skies lightened up and the rain stopped shortly afterward, giving way to a rainbow when the game began a few minutes after 8.

Batting third in the lineup, like he had for most of his career, Rodriguez came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the first and Gardner on first base. The sold-out crowd stood and gave Rodriguez an ovation.

As he settled into the batter's box, the crowd began to chant, "Let's go, A-Rod." With a 2-2 count, A-Rod lined the pitch to the right-center field gap for an RBI double.

With the crowd cheering wildly, A-Rod clapped his hands together and pumped his fists at second base, just as he did after the heroic double in Philadelphia during his one and only World Series.

Rodriguez didn't collect another hit in his last game. But after his final at-bat -- a groundout to short that ended the seventh inning -- Girardi surprised A-Rod by asking him if he wanted to play third base.

With the Yankees holding a 6-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth, the crowd began another chant: "We want A-Rod." As the inning came to an end, Girardi walked out to the home plate umpire and informed him of the upcoming change. Seconds later, Rodriguez emerged from the dugout and sprinted toward third base.

A-Rod plays third in 9th

The crowd erupted and stayed on its feet as Betances threw the first pitch of the ninth inning to Mikie Mahtook. A few pitches later, Betances struck out the Rays center fielder, and Yankees infielder Ronald Torreyes ran out of the dugout to replace A-Rod at third. The crowd again rose to its feet and gave Rodriguez a long ovation as he hugged each of his teammates, all of whom had come out onto the field.

Following the game, Rodriguez was again embraced by his teammates. He took some dirt from third base and one more curtain call.

After he made his way back to first base, where he gave a postgame interview, Rodriguez's two daughters ran out onto the field and bounded toward him. When they got to him, his eyes welled up as he leaned down and hugged them.

Moments later, Rodriguez left the field -- hand in hand with his daughters -- for the last time as a Yankees player.

In his postgame press conference, Rodriguez, donning a suit and tie, looked more relaxed than ever.

"Well, I'm relieved," he said with a smile. "The game of baseball is tough. I saw Gary Sanchez have a huge series in Boston, and I looked at him and said, 'I can't do that anymore.' I'm happy about that. I'm at peace.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.