By Jim Litke
Talk about a U-turn: All those New Yorkers who volunteered to drive Alex Rodriguez back to LaGuardia Airport within weeks of his arrival, and almost every day since, suddenly can't imagine life without him.
Remember the tank top A-Rod's wife wore to Yankee Stadium nearly two weeks ago? The one with the two-word obscenity printed on the back that the New York Post splashed on the front page and the locals found so offensive?
Well, the only thing that would offend most of them at the moment is finding out that Cynthia Rodriguez borrowed it from her husband's closet. Because now that the New York dailies again are speculating whether A-Rod could be going, going, gone at season's end, it might be easier to ship the Statue of Liberty out of town instead.
The Yankees showed up for Thursday night's contest at Tampa Bay still trailing the AL East-leading Red Sox by 10 games. But fans understand that without Rodriguez' off-the-charts contributions so far, calculating the "games-behind" figure would have required the use of their toes as well. That explained why unidentified team executives have been quoted as saying the club is willing to negotiate an extension for Rodriguez whenever his agent, Scott Boras, gets around to calling.
The first time the subject was broached in March, Boras said he was instructed to hold off on contract talks during the season, and that remains his stance in public.
"We have always been under the plan that it's something we would talk about at the end of the season, and we've had no discussions with anyone," Boras said Thursday, then quickly added, "Don't expect to."
Wily as he is, Boras knows the current panic has more to do with slow news days than a real shift in the Yankees' negotiating stance. But he also knows the longer it drags on, the easier his work likely will be come November, not to mention much more lucrative.
The funny thing is that A-Rod never had it quite this good in New York. For all the things he's tried to win over fans and teammates - moving from shortstop to third, trash-talking opponents, even baring his soul about visits to a shrink - nothing has made him look better than being surrounded by similarly high-priced, but woefully underperforming teammates. And because details of his salary have been published over and over the last few days, even the most committed A-Rod haters have to concede he's a bargain.
Rodriguez gets a $27 million salary this year, but thanks to the shrewd deal general manager Brian Cashman cut to bring him to New York, Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks still has to kick in about $11 million of the total. As one of the tabloids noted, that means the Yankees are getting A-Rod's services for about 60 cents on the dollar.
So, New York, how do you like A-Rod now?
And how do you like your chances of keeping him?
Despite the headlines of recent days, the answer is actually very, very good - thanks to that long ago boo-boo by Hicks.
Because of a clause Boras tucked in there long ago, A-Rod can opt out of his deal within 10 days after the last pitch of the World Series - but that would let Hicks opt out, too.
Loved as Rodriguez is at the moment, however, all it will take is a big drop in production or another subpar playoff performance, and he'll be loathed again. And that tank top his wife wore to Yankee Stadium could become a hot-selling item in the Bronx, with the word, "too," tacked on the end.