NEW YORK – The Yankee faithful booed Alex Rodriguez before he popped up. They booed him before he grounded out. They booed him before he looked at a third strike.
That is what happens when you linger too long, when you become an affront to the senses. You’re the forgotten fish under the broiler. Everyone would rather toss you out, cover you up and hope you go away. Maybe booing would get someone to rise and throw open a window.
But the fans did not voice disapproval, derision or scorn when Rodriguez stepped to the plate in the seventh inning. Synthetic testosterone and transgressions aside, there is a basic covenant to keep.
You don’t boo pinstripes with bases full and the game in a knot.
And when you empty those bases with a lunging yet just balanced enough swing? When you coax a grand slam into that cute little veranda they call right field here? When you put a morphine drip into dying playoff hopes?
Then you’re a hero again. An aloof, self-obsessed, Biogenesis-fueled hero.
Rodriguez did more than victimize reliever George Kontos, punish departed right-hander Tim Lincecum for three unearned yet undeserved runs and generate one more ovation while lifting the Yankees to a 5-1 victory over the Giants Friday night.
He even did more than keep the Yankees faintly alive in the AL playoff picture. That much will be forgotten soon. It will take a revival tent and a healing miracle for the Yankees to receive their discharge papers from this bed.
What mattered most Friday night is that Rodriguez perfumed the record book, nudging aside Lou Gehrig to become sole proprietor with 24 grand slams in his major league career.
A-Rod will linger, and good luck masking it.
Bud Selig memorably stuffed his hands in his pockets that night in San Diego, when Barry Bonds hit his 755th home run to tie Hank Aaron’s all-time mark. You wonder if Bud held his nose this time.
Rodriguez is playing because he alone, among the players who received drugs from an anti-aging clinic in Miami, is appealing his suspension. Even the Yankees did not want Rodriguez to return, hoping they could collect some insurance money and scrub out the rest with tomato juice and pumice.
But give him this: That was no cookie he munched in the seventh inning. Right-hander George Kontos had a 2-1 count and threw a fastball on the outside edge. He thought he hit his spot. He looked at video. He still thought he hit his spot.
“He was out there leaning to get it,” Kontos said. “He’s a good hitter. He’s got a lot of experience. I don’t know if I made the perfect pitch if he wouldn’t have hit it. In this ballpark, as strong as he is, flip it out there with backspin and it tends to go.”
It was the perfect pitch to make at AT&T Park, where pitchers almost bait right-handed power hitters to pounce on outside pitches. If the breeze through the archways doesn’t knock them down, then the cold and heavy air does. And if neither is enough, at least you have 25 feet of solid brick.
In this ballpark, though, it meant cheering the rogue. It meant killing your dinner when you have no stomach for that sort of thing. For the thousands of Giants fans who invaded Yankee Stadium, it had to conjure memories of 2007, and a chase that was joyless for most everyone else in the nation.
“They travel well,” Rodriguez remarked of the orange-blotched stands.
Oh, and in case you don’t have an all-time home run leaderboard flashing in your kitchen, Rodriguez has 654 in his career. Six more and he’ll tie Willie Mays for fourth all-time.
If Mays is royalty for Giants fans, Gehrig is all purple velvet and crown jewels in the Bronx. He is toughness, consistency and class personified – all the pins and clusters revered highest in this game. And he is bravery in the most extreme example the sport can provide. He is a dying man. He is the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
"Obviously, I'm a huge Lou Gehrig fan," Rodriguez said, reading from an internal teleprompter in that way of his. "He's kind of like the gold standard as a Yankee."
Gehrig hit his last grand slam 75 years ago. He died three years after that, of the degenerative disease that now bears his name.
But don’t lament that another piece of him wasted away as Rodriguez rounded the bases and descended the dugout, without thought or demand for a curtain call.
The book can change. An acrid smell can linger. And asterisks appease only the small people who get principled and inflexible when they know it annoys everyone else.
But past deeds? The ones done with valor? If remembered as such, those are impermeable.