The New York tabloids were already having their way with Alex Rodriguez well before he rounded second, headed for third, and exchanged pleasantries with Howie Clark of the Toronto Blue Jays.
No, this had nothing to do with hitting a baseball or stopping the New York Yankees' losing streak. This was about much juicier stuff - like blondes, strip clubs, Las Vegas, and a lonely wife waiting at home.
``STRAY-ROD,'' blared the New York Post. ``YANKEE DOODLE RANDY.''
Rodriguez, of course, has made the tabs a few times before. They feasted on him last year when he kept swinging at curve balls in the dirt at the very time his team was trying to get back into the World Series. And his relationship with Derek Jeter has always proved to be good fodder.
When you're the $250 million man, everything you do gets analyzed every which way.
Never, though, has so much been said about one word.
A-Rod uttered it as he closed in on third base in the ninth inning Wednesday against the Blue Jays, though accounts vary to exactly what word he actually used. Rodriguez claims he just said, ``Hah,'' while Clark remembers hearing ``Mine.''
Whatever was said, it created an international incident almost powerful enough to wipe the previous A-Rod would-be scandal off the front page.
Still, baseball purists were upset that Rodriguez would try to take advantage of the unsuspecting Clark by saying something behind his back as he settled under a popup that would have ended the inning and kept the Blue Jays within two runs.
Clark thought it was shortstop John McDonald, not Rodriguez, calling him off. So he backed off, only to watch the ball drop untouched on the infield.
The Blue Jays were more than upset. They were so angry a few had to be restrained from leaving the dugout.
``That's not Yankee pride right there,'' Toronto manager John Gibbons said. ``That's not the way they play. I thought it was bush league.''
Desperate times, though, call for desperate measures. And there's a lot of desperation on a Yankee team that had to win to avoid being swept and falling into last place behind the lowly Devil Rays.
That may or may not have been on A-Rod's mind as he approached third. He might have just been thinking about what to say to those pesky tabloid reporters after the game, and the first word he could think of accidentally slipped out.
Bush league, it wasn't. Little League, maybe, though Rodriguez didn't say anything about Clark's mother or the pitcher having a rubber arm.
Strangely enough, A-Rod's teammates didn't rush to back him up. They mostly pleaded ignorance, which might be more telling about his place on the team than anything they might have said.
The point is, there's nothing wrong with Rodriguez saying or doing almost anything he wants as he's running the bases. Short of leaving the basepath or intentionally colliding with a fielder, there's nothing in the rulebook forbidding talking or even doing somersaults between bases.
A-Rod could have stood behind Clark and auditioned for American Idol if he wanted.
This wasn't the 18th green of the U.S. Open with Phil Mickelson yelling, ``miss it!'' while Tiger Woods was trying to putt. It wasn't Wimbledon, where even the royals aren't allowed to rustle their jewelry while players grunt in front of them.
This was a baseball game with nine players on the field, a few more running around the bases, a couple dozen others in dugouts and bullpens, and 29,287 people in the stands. A baseball game where things get loud and free speech rules in the stands and on the field.
Sure, the Blue Jays were embarrassed, and they should have been. But they botched an easy play because they didn't communicate, and A-Rod took advantage of it.
Hopefully, no one will pull the hidden ball trick against Toronto this year. It might really hurt their feelings.
New Yorkers, of course, have to be loving it. Rodriguez gave them something to laugh about in a season where laughs are few and even the impending arrival of Roger Clemens won't be enough to turn the Yankees into playoff contenders.
For A-Rod, it was almost as good. Not only could he savor a rare win, but the questions after the game were about something other than his love life.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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