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New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez watches his
home run in the eighth inning leave the
park against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
April 2, 2007. (Paul J. Bereswill/Newsday/MCT)


NEW YORK - Mariano Rivera had just finished blistering the Devil Rays with one merciless cutter after another, striking out the side so efficiently (13 pitches) and with such overwhelming force (six swings and misses) that it was impossible to ignore the closer’s message: At age 37, the war against time is anything but over.


Welcome to opening day, where everyone gets to customize their unveiling of the summer ahead. Rivera put his timeless cut fastball on display, Carl Pavano pitched without embarrassment – but without much success, either - and Alex Rodriguez received a curtain call for his monstrous two-run homer in the eighth inning. Meanwhile, the Yankee offense embarked on its 1,000-run campaign in a 9-5 win over Tampa Bay.


Perfect? It was close enough, although there were deeper, more emotional bookmarks on the afternoon. The first was Cory Lidle’s family throwing out the first pitch, a sight that several Yankees said reduced them to tears. And then there was Bobby Murcer’s return to the broadcast booth in the fourth inning. It didn’t take long for the Stadium crowd to realize the man who is fighting (and apparently, beating) a brain tumor was in their midst, sparking the kind of applause that cut across every demographic group.


Everyone in the ballpark, it seemed, was on their feet, including the Yankees themselves in the dugout. Murcer looked happy and strong, his cancer in remission. He waved back to his fans, assuring them that his war isn’t over, either.


For that one instant Murcer’s brave struggle dwarfed all other Yankee subplots. Even A-Rod’s bizarre, roller-coaster day seemed less dramatic, although by the end of the day, the slugger’s ebb and flow had spawned a life of its own.


Rodriguez started by over-running a pop foul in the first inning, then struck out with two runners in scoring position in the bottom half of the inning. He was booed twice in the first 30 minutes of opening day, hardly anyone’s idea of a christening.


It was impossible not to think A-Rod was sinking fast in a cesspool of self-doubt and self-loathing; it’s been his profile for this long, why would Monday afternoon have been any different? But Rodriguez ultimately was rescued by two key factors: The first was the support he received in his own dugout, starting with Jason Giambi, who, after the first inning pulled A-Rod aside and said, “Don’t let it fall into where it keeps going. Remember one good at-bat can change all that.”


The man who desperately wants to be loved by the fans and accepted by his teammates took that advice to heart, taking advantage of the soft underbelly of the D-Rays’ bullpen in his final two at-bats. The day changed so radically for A-Rod that he was later able to laugh at his horrible start, alternately calling it “embarrassing” and the work of a “moron.”


A-Rod knows he would’ve been publicly shredded if the Yankees hadn’t resurrected from a 5-3 deficit after five innings. But that’s their salvation, that nuclear offense that makes the late innings a terror for opposing relievers. As Joe Torre said, “We like to think if we can stay close, not too many teams are going to be able to shut us down completely.”


Those words became a prophecy, as the Yankees scored five runs in the final three innings. The turning point? It was A-Rod - who else? - who ignited the go-ahead rally in the seventh with a one-hop grounder off Brian Stokes that went screaming past shortstop Ben Zobrist, generously ruled a base hit.


A-Rod then went into what he called “small ball” mode, stealing second and then scoring on Giambi’s RBI single to right. An inning later, A-Rod was beating up on another overwhelmed D-Rays reliever, Juan Salas, nuking that two-run homer that gave the Yankees a four-run lead for Rivera, which was the equivalent of an automatic fast-forward to Game 2 on the schedule.


That’s when the real passion play begins; opening day is too full of pomp and ceremony to be viewed as anything but eye candy. Starting Wednesday, we’ll learn if the “good demeanor and body language” that Torre says A-Rod is displaying will carry over to the regular season.


But so goes the starter’s gun on the million questions about A-Rod’s opt-out clause in his contract, the presumed countdown to (fill in the name of a West Coast team), and the temperature of his diplomatic ties to Derek Jeter.


But game by game, pitch by pitch, the Yankees are hoping they’ll see more of the post-seventh inning A-Rod for the rest of the summer, the one who’s quick enough to create runs with his speed, and strong enough to hit 400-foot home runs when he’s merely thinking about punching line drives.


On a day of powerful achievements, this might’ve been the most impressive of all: A-Rod went deep while trying to emulate Bobby Abreu, who preceded Rodriguez’ at-bat with an opposite-field single to left. Indeed, if Rodriguez is this good when he’s this calm, imagine how plentiful the rest of the season could be.


If only he could relax.


It’s the single greatest what-if clause in the Yankee empire: If a confident Rodriguez tears through a monster summer, takes the Yankees to the World Series and fulfills his pinstripe mandate, will he stick around?


In all probability, no. But the final answer will be revealed to us, one at-bat at a time, starting Wednesday. Fingers crossed, that’s one more war with time the Yankees are hoping to win.

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