A-Rod doesn't exactly come out swinging

Never vehemently demands he's innocent in PED suspension

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For 15 minutes before Monday night’s White Sox-Yankees game at U.S. Cellular Field, fans lined up 10 deep next to the visitors’ dugout to ask Alex Rodriguez for the one thing A-Rod keeps trying so desperately to protect.

His name.

Smiling like a rookie without a care in the world, Rodriguez obliviously signed balls, hats and other souvenirs extended his way. Add committing forgery to the list of things Rodriguez could be accused of Monday after Major League Baseball suspended him for 211 games for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Apologies to every kid who waited in the drizzle, but the only thing more worthless than Rodriguez’s autograph was his explanation.

That weak attempt came earlier as the New York media and 17 television cameras, including one from Al Jazeera, helped make 35th and Shields the biggest dot on the baseball map for one odd night on the South Side. Responding to the longest non-lifetime suspension in baseball history, Rodriguez spoke about respecting an appeal process likely to keep him on the field the rest of the season and implied he will be exonerated. But Rodriguez never vehemently demanded he was innocent, never claimed he was wronged, not even when asked directly if he had taken PEDs.

“We’ll have a forum to discuss all of that,” Rodriguez said evasively as the clicking of cameras drowned out his voice.

He talked like a guy counting on being cleared on a technicality or the best legal maneuvering his money can buy instead of a man trying to convince America he did nothing wrong. He never showed defiance as much as deliberateness, choosing to delineate his next move more than defend himself against accusations he was a drug cheat. He lawyered up, speaking from a script more than from the heart.

“When the time is right, there will be an opportunity to do all that,” he said.

The time was right for Rodriguez to take advantage of the opportunity to humanize himself instead of coming across like a baseball automaton programmed by a fleet of public relations professionals. In Rodriguez’s world, where everything can be explained by the right lawyer, PEDs also stand for Perpetually Enabling Delusion.

“I’m a human being, I’m fighting for my life,” Rodriguez said. “I have to defend myself.”

As defenses go, this was one passive opening statement for someone poised to join Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens on his sport’s Mount Rushmore of performance-enhancing drug users. When it comes to baseball infamy, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have nothing on the player derisively called “A-Fraud” as he jogged onto the field.

The Sox sold around 2,000 tickets Monday and the walk-ups among the crowd of 27,948 didn’t come to see a team 29 games below .500. One fan carried a “211’’ sign — the number of games Rodriguez was suspended. Others chanted “PEDs!” Chicago baseball fans had seen the Cubs and Sox drop 14 straight games collectively before Monday. We know a loser when we see one.

As far back as 2000, when Rodriguez was a free agent, Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf imagined A-Rod being a marquee attraction at The Cell — but not like this, with Rodriguez’s arrival including everything but a trapeze act and bearded lady. They booed when Rodriguez reached base on a blooper that escaped the glove of left fielder Dayan Viciedo. Fittingly, it was anything but a clean single. They cheered when he made outs, the loudest when he struck out looking in the eighth.

Not even Yankees manager Joe Girardi could save the day from being a farce. Nearly in the same breath, Girardi denounced PEDs and defended his plan to bat Rodriguez fourth for a team hurting at third base. Girardi’s weak but understandable rationale? “I’m not on this world to judge people,” he said.

Perhaps, but it is Commissioner Bud Selig’s job. Yet Selig stopped short of making it a more monumental occasion for baseball by choosing to maintain a healthy relationship with the players union rather than invoke his right to ban Rodriguez “in the best interests of the game.” Selig left Rodriguez’s fate up to arbitrator Fredric Horowitz, who might not hear the appeal until November.

The 12 other players suspended chose to begin their suspensions immediately. Baseball celebrated cleaning up the sport, but is a 50-game penalty for Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz, for instance, really a deterrent for the next young slugger tempted to use PEDs? Cruz, finishing up a $16 million contract, still will become a sought-after free agent in the winter.

By then, Rodriguez will be somewhere plotting a comeback at 40. Few things are sadder in sports than an aging superstar looking like a shadow of his previous self — except perhaps an aging superstar clinging to the fantasy he can save a career he tainted forever.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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