ST. PETERSBURG — Two New York Yankees on what might be their last trip into Tropicana Field. One revered, one reviled. Before the Tampa Bay Rays played the Yankees on Friday night, the Rays christened a sand sculpture they commissioned to honor the great Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera, now nearing the end of his farewell tour. Rivera was on hand for the ceremony. This might be Alex Rodriguez’s last trip to the Trop, too. Who knows? There was no sculpture. I don’t think they can pile those particular building materials that high. And we don’t mean mud.
A-Rod played baseball Friday night, as is his right, given his appeal. People booed him, as is their right when they spot a fake. Mariano Rivera, everything a ballplayer can be, universally respected, the real deal all these years. Alex Rodriguez, not so real, what baseball let itself become for far too long. No Rays pitcher decided to make an issue of it, which is good. Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster should be suspended for the season, not because he hit A-Rod, but because, for a brief moment, he actually made him an object of sympathy. Before Friday’s game, there were video tributes to Rivera on the scoreboard. There had been a long line of Rays willing to do them, too. The crowd roared. Rivera stepped from the Yankees dugout and waved his cap. “For him to be the person he’s been on the biggest stage in baseball, that’s the biggest thing,” Rays pitcher David Price said. “He does everything the right way. That speaks volumes about his character, and that’s more important than what he’s done on the field.” In the first inning, Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate and the Trop crowd booed. This place had never booed like this. Heck, it never makes noise like this for anything. But this was like the 162 of We Don’t Like You. Rays starter Chris Archer struck out Rodriguez, looking, to end the inning. People stood and cheered. It didn’t have to be this way. With all those home runs and RBIs and MVP awards, this could have been a different kind of home stretch for A-Rod. Maybe not like for Rivera, or for another Yankee, the captain, Derek Jeter, but something other than Pariah on Parade. Only he decided to cheat and lie. He compounded it with acting so transparent as to almost be majestic. It’s so bad that Rays manager Joe Maddon made news of sorts earlier this week when he said his ball players would not throw at A-Rod. Maddon, tired of it all, reiterated nonetheless Friday. “We are not here to be vigilantes. There are mechanisms in place to take care of all of this.” There was a mechanism that should have prevented this a long time ago: A-Rod intergity, character. Oh, yeah, that. There are people who stand by the man, though they teeter some. There were some at the Trop on Friday night. They stood along the third-base line during batting practice, wearing No. 13 jerseys with Rodriguez’s name. Anthony Samaroo works for an airline in Chicago. He grew up near Yankee Stadium in The Bronx. He flies for free, so he travels to see his Yankees. He wore his A-Rod jersey, just as he wore it last weekend in Boston, the night A-Rod was hit by Dempster, the night A-Rod later homered. “I took some heat that night,” Samaroo said. “He’s done some wrong in his life, but we’re all human. Would you turn your back on your son or your daughter if he or she was a drug addict? Do I believe him? It’s kind of hard to, because everyone has admitted to it, and he’s the only one appealing, you know?” He watched as A-Rod fielded practice grounders. “I roll with him, but I don’t know,” Anthony Samaroo said. “He could have gone down as one of the greatest, and now you won’t ever hear his name mentioned. ... That’s what I’d ask if I ever met him. I’d ask him why he thinks he had to go that route when he’s such a natural talent. Why?” One of the people who created the Rivera sand sculpture is named Meredith Corson. She doesn’t know much about Rivera’s pitching records. “I just know he’s a really great guy,” she said. “That’s what everyone says.” And then there is Alex Rodriguez. It didn’t have to be this way. Then again, maybe it did.