Last night, in Charleston, S.C., Alex Rodriguez, a one-time baseball-playing human whom the New York Yankees pay roughly $3,200 an hour, appeared in three innings for the Charleston RiverDogs, the Yankees' Single-A affiliate. He went 0-for-2, hitting into a double play and striking out. He instantly became the most famous player ever to appear in a RiverDogs uniform, surpassing Josh Hamilton, back when Hamilton was 19 and before everything fell apart.
The standing-room-only crowd went nuts for A-Rod, and why not? It's not every day that an all-timer -- particularly an all-timer as wackadoodle as A-Rod -- comes to play in your 6,000-seat stadium. He'll be there again tonight, and as his three weeks of rehab continues, you can probably expect to see him in Tampa, Trenton and/or Scranton.
As a lifelong minor league baseball aficionado, there's nothing I love more than when a big major league star makes an appearance in a minor league uniform. It is one thing when you can watch future stars train for the bigs; it's quite another when you can watch an established star get his timing back in a game you paid six bucks for. Last year, I visited a friend in Syracuse and caught a Syracuse Chiefs game. Sure enough, Jayson Werth was rehabbing his injury there, and I got to watch him in cozy minor league surroundings. A month-and-a-half later, he was hitting a walk-off home run in Game 4 of the NLDS. It's fantastic when that happens.
A-Rod's cameo got me thinking about how many other current superstars, active future Hall-of-Famers, have made late-in-career minor league drop-ins. Imagine getting to see a Hall of Famer at the same place where your kid is running the bases after the game, or where your youth league plays it championship game. It has happened. They always look so silly in the minor league uniforms, which makes it that much more fun. Ignoring Roger Clemens' late-career ridiculousness, here are some of my favorites among current stars:
Carlos Beltran. It didn't always go smoothly for Beltran -- who is making quite a late-career Hall of Fame case for himself -- in New York, but the city never embraced him more than when he played five games for the beloved Brooklyn Cyclones in 2009. The Cyclones were doing backflips having him on their team, and all told, he looked fantastic in the uniform. The Brooklyn Cyclones play in the best minor league atmosphere in the country; it's worth whatever you pay for it without major leaguers.
Roy Halladay. When Halladay was rehabbing last year for the Class A Clearwater Threshers, it was such a big deal that The Comcast Network in Philadelphia actually showed the game live. This was a little different, though, because, well, Halladay's rehab didn't actually go very well. We'll see Halladay in the minor leagues before we see him in the bigs again.
Derek Jeter. The Captain -- so named because he is in charge of a fishing boat in the offseason? -- has made Trenton his home during rehab stints in 2003 and 2011. When he was there two years ago, Trenton's manager was openly shaking. "You can't help but be excited," he said. (One wonders if he had the power to bench Jeter if he missed a sign.) Fans were even fired up for Jeter's batting practice. Trenton should get ready, because Jeter might very well be back there in a month or so.
Chipper Jones. OK, so Chipper just retired, but you have to include his stint playing for the Rome Braves last year, at 40. This allowed Jones' farewell turn to actually stop by the minors -- Chipper and his wife drove up from Atlanta after watching part a Braves afternoon game -- and visit a league he'd started out in 21 years earlier. The best part: The opposing pitcher almost hit him.
David Ortiz. Pawtucket is only an hour's drive from Boston, so it doesn't have quite the same effect when big stars visit, but it's still fun. Big Papi has gone down there a few times over the last five years, most recently earlier this season when he homered once in six games. I particularly love this picture and this promotional material.
Mariano Rivera. Mo only did this once, back in 2002, pitching two innings for the Gulf Coast League Yankees, striking out two, walking one. This wouldn't be noteworthy except that the last time he'd pitched for that team was 12 years earlier, in his first-ever taste of professional ball. He was a starter back then. As was usually the case with Rivera, his return was quiet and generally unheralded, though if you were there, I hope you still have your ticket.
It's the 4th tomorrow, and I can think of nothing better than to go see a local minor league team play. It always seems like America at its best -- you're outside, with cheap beer, mascot and fireworks -- with or without superstars.