x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A baseball enigma called Rodriguez

For all the controversy, this much cannot be debated: Alex Rodriguez can hit.

For all the controversy, this much cannot be debated: Alex Rodriguez can hit. Since returning from hip surgery performed in March, Rodriguez has produced one big hit after another. In his first game back, at Baltimore, Rodriguez hit the first pitch he saw into the seats in left, a feat which the modest Rodriguez termed a "fairytale". It was hard to argue with him, actually. Rodriguez had not faced regular season major league pitching since last fall, and yet it did not seem to matter. Following a two-week rehab stint in Tampa, Rodriguez rejoined his teammates and in the batter's box, it was like he never left.

The steroid allegations - which threatened to torpedo his season if not his career and legacy - did not detract from his performance. Nor did a salacious book, which purported to detail previous steroid use along with such unsavoury allegations as tipping pitches to opponents. Rather, Rodriguez returned to his personal cocoon - the baseball field - and proceeded to wreak havoc. It did not matter that he had effectively missed all of spring training, or that he had been apart from the Yankees for a period of about 10 weeks.

In his first 15 games back, Rodriguez clubbed seven homers, effectively silencing all the talk generated by his absence and intensified by his return. Tellingly, the Yankees were 12-3 in those 15 games. Certainly, Rodriguez was making his hits count. Of his 10, seven left the ballpark. An armchair psychologist might suggest that Rodriguez creates his own chaos so that he may thrive. How else to explain his performance under such conditions?

Either way, the Yankees weren't complaining. Battling bullpen issues and still waiting for newcomer Mark Teixeira to settle in with his new team, they welcomed Rodriguez's offensive booster shot. Rodriguez's latest homer - a game-tying shot in the ninth inning on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies - came as baseball began its annual inter-league schedule, matching teams from the American League and National League.

Introduced in 1997, inter-league competition is less of a novelty and now more of a staple of each baseball season. It features teams playing 18 games against opponents from the other league, determined by a rotating cross-over format. The idea of teams from different leagues playing during the season remains an anathema to some purists, who continue to claim it detracts from the World Series. That is mitigated by the fact that inter-league contests spike attendance by 11 per cent and generate publicity at a time when baseball is fighting with the NBA and NHL play-offs for attention.

Granted, some of the match-ups do not hold much allure. Detroit versus Colorado, for instance, was not a series that generated much interest in either city and offered no historical link. But for every uninteresting pairing, there were several that commanded the focus of fans. Dodgers-Angels boasted geographic rivalry. One suggestion that merits introduction: reversing the "designated hitter" or DH rules now in place.

Under the format, inter-league games played in American League ballparks feature the DH for both teams, while games in National League parks utilise NL rules - ie, the pitchers hit for themselves. As a means of giving the respective fans a new experience, some have suggested that a switch is in order, with the NL-based games featuring the DH, while the teams played in AL cities showcasing the hitters.

Thirteen years in, a little experimentation would not be a bad thing. smcadams@thenational.ae