Suspended A-Rod returns, and the baseball world goes on

CHICAGO -- One starting pitcher was an admitted HGH user. The other once served a drug suspension.

This is the baseball world we live in, the baseball world Alex Rodriguez returned to Monday night.

The baseball world where he's now being held up as the worst of the worst, the guy you're supposed to hate, the guy who should never again be allowed to darken our great game.

"Just go," the New York Post begged on its Monday morning front page.

But he won't. Not yet, and perhaps not for quite a while.

"I'm fighting for my life," Alex Rodriguez declared Monday afternoon.

Feel free to roll your eyes. Feel free to laugh. Feel free to scoff. A-Rod doesn't deserve your sympathy.

But if Monday night proved anything, it proved that having Alex Rodriguez back in uniform while we wait for an arbitrator to rule on his case is nowhere near the disaster for baseball that some made it out to be. And nowhere near the problem MLB itself seemed to think it would be, back in those days of last week when we were told that Bud Selig didn't want to see A-Rod on a major-league field ever again.

A-Rod was on a major-league field Monday, and it was actually pretty dull. He went 1 for 4, he got booed and yelled at by the fans, his Yankees lost 8-1 to the White Sox, and life went on.

By A-Rod circus standards, this didn't even come close to matching last Friday in Trenton, when he homered and fired off accusations and talked about "the pink elephant in the room."

Friday is only a few days back, but it's far enough back that on that night in Trenton, you were thinking you might be watching the final at-bats of Alex Rodriguez's professional life.

On Monday, you knew that there was going to be another A-Rod game Tuesday, and perhaps another 50 or so after that, before arbitrator Frederic Horowitz finally gets a chance to decide whether baseball has the goods to send him away for far longer than any other drug cheat in history.

Players union chief Michael Weiner said Monday that Rodriguez's appeal will almost certainly not be resolved until the offseason. Barring another crazy twist or another injury, that means Rodriguez could end up finishing out the season with the Yankees.

"Just getting started," A-Rod said in a brief and uneventful postgame interview Monday night.

Rodriguez had an equally uneventful press conference before the game, carefully staying away from any declarations about his drug use, or about his employers. He talked repeatedly about "the process," but he refused to be drawn into any talk about why he was the lone Biogenesis player to appeal his suspension.

The answer seemed obvious. MLB clearly singled out A-Rod, which doesn't necessarily mean he was unfairly singled out. But the penalty assessed to him was far greater than those assessed to the other players, and greater than handed out in any other PED case.

Baseball has let it be known that it holds strong evidence of Rodriguez's cheating, and also of his efforts to "obstruct and frustrate" the investigation. Barring a settlement, Horowitz will decide if that evidence is enough to merit such a stiff penalty.

Beyond convincing Horowitz, though, MLB wants to convince the public. Baseball officials can't allow A-Rod to be seen as anything close to a sympathetic character.

The crowd reaction Monday suggests that he won't be. Most of the fans at U.S. Cellular Field booed constantly during his at-bats, and some screamed at him while others waved their middle fingers.

In some ways, it felt less like baseball than like pro wrestling, and A-Rod seemed less like a ballplayer than like the designated villain.

He handled that fine, which shouldn't come as a surprise, as he's had plenty of experience.

"It was hard day, a long day," he said. "It's been crazy."

But really, it ended up being less crazy than you would have thought going in. Rodriguez seemed to be warmly welcomed back by many of his teammates and Yankees staff. It wasn't as if he was on an island, all by himself.

"If I'm productive, I think they want me back," he said. "I feel tremendous support from the clubhouse."

The fact is that the Yankees are as accustomed to "distractions" as any team in the game, and it's not as if the A-Rod saga feels that much worse than anything that has come before. The other fact is that if Rodriguez is productive, this Yankees team badly needs him.

It may not matter, given the way CC Sabathia has struggled in recent weeks and given another lousy performance from Andy Pettitte on Monday night. The Yankees are 9½ games out of first place and 4½ games out of the final playoff spot, and while there's plenty of time left to change that, there aren't many indications that they're capable of it.

For once, you've got to believe that those who run MLB will be rooting against them to make it, to avoid the possibility of explaining how an accused steroid cheat can help a team get to the postseason and then play a part in October.

For now, though, they can rest easy that having Alex Rodriguez back on a major-league field in August didn't ruin the game, any more than having Andy Pettitte (who once admitted to using HGH) or Jose Quintana (who served a minor-league drug suspension) did.

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