By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - One last play in the field, that was all Alex Rodriguez wanted and with a 6-3 lead in Friday's ninth inning of his last game in pinstripes, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was able to make it happen.
"We want A-Rod! We want A-Rod!" the sold-out Yankee Stadium crowd of over 46,000 pleaded at the end of the eighth and out from the dugout Rodriguez emerged, trotting toward third base and the ball park shook with their standing ovation.
Rodriguez, 41, had thrilled fans with his talents for 22 seasons, the last dozen in New York including a World Series title, and sickened others with his doping offences, the last one wiping out his entire 2014 campaign.
Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner told A-Rod last week that he would be released after this game against the Tampa Bay Rays, with the club swallowing his $20 million salary for next year as they worked earnestly to shift to younger players.
"I'm going to savor every moment, every at-bat," three-time American League MVP and 14-time All-Star Rodriguez told reporters before the game.
A-Rod certainly enjoyed his first trip to the plate.
Given a standing ovation and the familiar chant of "A-Rod", he lined a run-scoring double up the gap in right-center off starter Chris Archer to score Brett Gardner from first to tie the game at 1-1 in the opening frame.
That was his only hit, but home runs by Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks padded New York's lead to 6-3 and Girardi was comfortable giving A-Rod a last moment to cherish.
Rodriguez had been made a full-time designated hitter last year and this year as he struggled to make contact at the plate, was getting less and less play time, batting a woeful .199.
"I'm very grateful that Joe gave me the opportunity to play third. I hadn't touched my glove for a long time," said A-Rod, who stands fourth on the all-time home run list behind Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds.
"I haven't played a lot of baseball lately."
Reliever Dellin Betances took the pressure off Rodriguez by striking out Mikie Mahtook leading off the ninth and the ball park exploded again when Ronald Torreyes was sent to replace A-Rod, who received one more thunderous curtain call and a round of hugs from team mates who left the dugout to greet him.
"If this is the last time he plays, I wanted it to be something that would never be forgotten for him," Girardi said, sobbing with emotion.
"After the game I went up to him, shook his hand and gave him a big hug," Rodriguez said about the manager. "I'm forever grateful. That was a big moment."
Betances struck out the next two Rays batters to end the game, and A-Rod came out and collected some dirt from the third base area and put it in a baggie for a keepsake.
"I just wanted a little bit of a memory," said A-Rod.
Before the game, with the field covered by a tarpaulin for a threatened thunderstorm, the Yankees staged a modest tribute to Rodriguez with a video salute to him on the huge centerfield screen with family and friends joining him near home plate.
As he was being presented a base signed by team mates and a framed No. 13 Yankees uniform by owner Steinbrenner, a thunderclap boomed and a lightning bolt lit the Bronx sky.
"The ceremony, it was certainly like biblical," said A-Rod. "To hear the thunder crackle... You can't make this up. I guess we went out with a bang."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)