The other side of A-Rod's rehab stint
Three-time AL MVP is making an impression on Minor League teammates, coaches
VIERA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez comes to the plate, and whether they're for him or against him, the fans react louder than they will for anything else all weekend. He steps into the batter's box, and those seated around home plate reach for their cell phones to take pictures. He moves toward the rolled-up tarp down the third-base line, and they rush toward the left-field stands for autographs.
In short, whenever Rodriguez does anything at Space Coast Stadium this weekend, all eyes are on him. Naturally.
Rodriguez is a three-time American League Most Valuable Player Award winner, a 14-time All-Star and a polarizing superstar with a $275 million contract whose fame extends beyond that of a baseball player and into the realm of celebrity. He's playing in Minor League rehabilitation games with 647 Major League home runs to his name. Most of the 4,648 fans attending these two games between the Class A Advanced Tampa Yankees and Brevard County Manatees are here for A-Rod.
But the rehab process is not particularly interesting on a day-to-day basis. It's a slow, steady progression of workouts, baseball activities and games that most players go through in Spring Training. Yankees captain Derek Jeter said last month that it would be "very boring" to watch his progress after re-fracturing his left ankle, and Rodriguez hasn't exactly been introspective about his early work in the Minor Leagues, either.
His most animated moment in front of reporters this weekend was a sarcastic quip about how little his first hit in nine months actually meant, which ended with, "Who cares? Really."
Overall, Rodriguez said after Saturday's game, his busiest outing yet, his performance in these first few games means "nothing."
And A-Rod has a point. If he had gone 4-for-4 with four home runs in an early July Florida State League contest, what would it have meant for him? If Rodriguez had gone 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in just his third or fourth game since last October, would it have affected him at all?
But that's not to say these games are meaningless. What they mean depends simply on who you talk to.
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Talk to Cody Scarpetta, a 24-year-old right-hander back in the Florida State League with an interesting story of his own. Formerly one of the top prospects in the Brewers organization, he reached the Majors for one day in 2011 because Milwaukee needed a long reliever.
Scarpetta didn't pitch that day, went back to Double-A and started to feel some soreness in his arm. He didn't break camp in 2012 and underwent Tommy John surgery last May. He's worked his way to this point, his arm feeling "OK" in his sixth start for Brevard County on a long road back to full health.
Scarbetta has been on a restricted pitch count as part of his return, but he's rolled through four innings on this gorgeous Saturday evening, probably his best outing yet.
Obviously excited to face one of baseball's most accomplished hitters, Scarpetta induced a groundout in the first inning before giving up a single -- A-Rod's first rehab hit -- in the third.
"We heard that he was coming a few days ago, and everyone started to get a little wired," Scarpetta said. "Once he steps into the box, it sets in."
Scarpetta was nearing his pitch limit after recording two outs in the fifth and putting runners on first and second. Rodriguez was due up next. In the bullpen, lefty Stephen Peterson was hoping Scarpetta's night was over. He wanted a chance to face A-Rod, too.
But Scarpetta stayed in, ran up a 1-1 count and threw a "backup curveball" too far inside.
The pitch hit Rodriguez on the left side, very close to his surgically repaired hip, the main reason he's in Viera and not in the Bronx right now. A-Rod later explained that the pitch hit him in the IT band, but he winced and grabbed his hip before trotting to first base. Scarpetta had reached his pitch limit, and he apologized to Rodriguez as he walked off the field.
"A lot of people were obviously there to see him. You definitely want to perform," Scarpetta said. "But the buzz, you could definitely feel it.
"It's definitely something that you can write home about."
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Talk to Joe Ayrault, Brevard County's manager, who came to the mound to get Scarpetta after that errant curveball. Ayrault, 41, had crossed paths before with Rodriguez, who will turn 38 later this month.
Ayrault was a coach in the Rangers organization during A-Rod's final years in Texas. He recalled being in the room when Rodriguez talked to several hitting coaches about his approach, sharing ideas and techniques that Ayrault still teaches today.
"He's a big leaguer. You see that. It's a Hall of Famer," Ayrault said. "You tell the guys, 'That guy was the best in the game when he was rolling.'"
The two occasionally chatted during Saturday's game, Ayrault in the third-base coach's box while Rodriguez played defense. Ayrault said he mostly told Rodriguez he was happy to see him back on the field. But when A-Rod came out for the bottom of the fifth, the Manatees' skipper saw a chance to crack a joke.
"I ran over to [Rodriguez], I said, 'See how I roll? Somebody hits a Major League rehab guy, I take him out of the game,'" Ayrault said. "He was laughing about that."
Ayrault also smiled about how excited some of his players were to be on the same field as Rodriguez, how they'd hoped he would get on base so they could talk to him and how the home crowd seemed to respond to Rodriguez, whether it was with a loud cheer or a round of boos.
"It's cool for my guys to be a part of it," Ayrault said. "[There were] a lot of fans at the game [Saturday]. It's pretty neat."
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Talk to Tampa's catcher-turned-third baseman Peter O'Brien, born and raised in Miami. He transferred before his senior season to the University of Miami, where the baseball stadium is named Alex Rodriguez Park.
The Yankees took O'Brien in the second round of the 2012 Draft. He started this year with Class A Charleston and posted a 1.012 OPS in 53 games, earning the bump up to Tampa.
O'Brien said he had seen A-Rod around the Miami baseball facilities a few times, and he's "always" been a fan. He probably couldn't have imagined taking batting practice and fielding grounders at third base with Rodriguez, but there they were together at Space Coast Stadium, "just two ballplayers going about their business."
Despite his excitement about working with Rodriguez, O'Brien said he's stayed relatively quiet around him, preferring to watch and listen instead.
"He's one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Anytime you're around someone like that, you can learn something," O'Brien said. "I feel like I've learned a lot in the last day just by watching him and his mannerisms and the way he goes about his business.
"When he's out there taking BP and throwing and taking ground balls, everything's just so easy and smooth. He makes it look so natural. That's a big thing I've been working on this year, not trying to do too much. That definitely helps me out, kind of got me back on track."
Make no mistake, O'Brien left an impression on Rodriguez, who seems to enjoy watching and talking to the young players in the Yankees' farm system. Rodriguez pointed to the 22-year-old's power and said he's going to have a "really good big league career."
"You try not to think about it too much," O'Brien said. "It is Alex Rodriguez, but at the end of the day, you've got to go out there and play baseball.
"But it's definitely awesome."
Indeed, the compliment was not lost on O'Brien, who broke into a grin several times when talking about Rodriguez. It wasn't their first meeting, but to take batting practice with a player he grew up admiring? To get text messages from friends and family who'd read what Rodriguez said about him?
That meant something.
"Anytime you have someone like that around you and says anything nice about you, it's awesome," O'Brien said. "I really look up to him. Hopefully I can be half the player he is someday."
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Finally, talk to Luis Sojo, the Tampa manager who's seen Rodriguez come and go through various rehab stints over the past three years.
Like Ayrault, Sojo has told his players to watch the way Rodriguez works. At some point during this rehab assignment, Sojo said Sunday, he's going to make A-Rod talk to the Tampa Yankees as a group, as he did last year for about 25 minutes.
"It was great for the kids. They're so excited. Alex has been great to them," Sojo said. "It's nice to have those kinds of guys. You don't want to have [them injured], but he's here, so the guys are taking advantage.
"I'm always talking about Alex and Derek Jeter. Those guys make $25 million to $30 million, and they're the first ones in the stadium, the last ones to leave."
But it won't be exactly like last year, and that's why these games have meant something to Sojo, who speaks with more excitement than just about anyone about Rodriguez's progress.
"He looks happy. No issues at all," Sojo said. "He's basically said it's about [getting his legs under him]. It's going to take a little while, but that's normal."
Sojo has noticed another change in Rodriguez's personality -- one that might not follow him out of the clubhouse or dugout, but he says the players see it as well.
Despite the number of controversies attached to A-Rod's name -- Major League Baseball's Biogenesis investigation, his reportedly strained relationship with the Yankees and so on -- Sojo said Rodriguez has been in better spirits. He attributes much of that change to Rodriguez's health.
"You could see him last year taking ground balls, shaking his head, because body-wise, it wasn't there," Sojo said. "Compared to last year, he's much better. Last year, I didn't see nothing good about him when he played for me. His body was breaking down.
"He seems great right now, so that's good stuff."
Even if Rodriguez won't let himself get caught up in his performance in these games -- even if it is realistically just "part of the progression" and nothing more from a baseball perspective -- they mean something to Sojo.
They mean something to Scarpetta, Ayrault, O'Brien and everyone else who has their eyes focused on A-Rod, waiting to see what he's going to do next.
Maybe when it's all said and done, they will have meant something for the Yankees, too.
"He's strong right now. He looks great. No issues. That's good to hear, because down the road, they're going to need that guy," Sojo said. "I don't care what people say. Down the road, he's going to be the guy."