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JACKIE MACMULLAN

He's a lightning rod for fans

Red Sox fans sporting blond masks were ready and willing to taunt Alex Rodriguez. (WINSLOW TOWNSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

You wonder why he can't get his arms around it -- the fame, the fortune, the free fall that inevitably accompanies both if you do not anticipate the warning signs that are always there, lurking in the shadows.

Alex Rodriguez never sees it coming. He is an immensely gifted, intelligent, diligent, and (as he has pointed out himself) handsome athlete who is a lightning rod for a franchise that once was steeped in the tradition of winning, but hasn't won a championship since he came aboard. Is that all his fault? Of course not, yet A-Rod spends much of his free time trying to dispel the perception that despite his considerable talents, he is unable to capture the hearts of the fans, teammates, even his manager.

He is a supernova with Hall of Fame numbers, yet there is a disconnect to his stardom. He is contrived rather than genuine, calculated instead of spontaneous, admired for his statistical body of work, yet rarely beloved for his approach to the game.

Come to think of it, have A-Rod and Kobe Bryant ever shared a cab? A publicist? A therapist?

Perhaps they should. They truly could be separated at birth. Both try too hard to be liked, and care too much when they're not. They tell us too much, allowing their insecurities to bubble to the surface like a pot of soup that has been simmering too long.

You remember that annoying kid you grew up with who got all A's on his tests? Instead of waiting for someone to tell him how smart he was, he went around bragging about his perfect scores. By the end of recess, you wanted to pummel the kid instead of praise him.

And, when that kid faltered ever so slightly, you celebrated his demise in spite of yourself.

A-Rod came to Fenway this weekend with some bulky tabloid baggage in tow. He was snapped in Toronto squiring around a buxom blonde, who happened to be someone other than his wife. A-Rod was trailed to a steakhouse, a strip club, then a hotel elevator a few blocks away from where teammates were staying.

The New York Post ran the exclusive photos under the headline: "Stray-Rod."

Conventional wisdom would suggest the best strategy would be to lay low and begin making amends privately to your wife.

But there was A-Rod Thursday afternoon at the trendy No. 9 Park with wife Cynthia. How convenient. The Rodriguezes managed to score a window seat -- a picture window seat perfectly suitable for a zoom lens. Later, A-Rod was photographed walking down the street holding his wife's hand.

Note to Alex: Have you ever seen Tim Duncan's wife in public? Bet you don't even know what she looks like. That's no accident. It's also why no tabloids trail the Spurs star from town to town.

Naturally, the Boston fans were waiting when A-Rod arrived at the park last night. We can only guess if he saw the guys in drag, dressed in blond wigs, carrying around a stripper's pole and signs that read, "I'm with A-Rod." Surely the cadre of gentlemen wearing blond masks along the third base line were unmistakable.

Rodriguez absorbed a pregame hit in his own dugout during manager Joe Torre's press conference regarding the now-famous incident Wednesday in which A-Rod distracted Blue Jays third baseman Howie Clark into dropping a pop fly. A-Rod maintains he merely said, "Hah!" as he ran toward the base. Clark contends Rodriguez said, "Mine! " leading the third baseman to believe his shortstop was calling him off the ball.

"He may have been excited about the fact that we were leading the ballgame," Torre said. "It was probably inappropriate to do it at the time he did it, but you can't change it, unfortunately."

Asked if he noticed the Toronto players staring A-Rod down, Torre responded, "They were angry. Oh, there's no question. I can't say I blame them. But what are you going to do about it? What's happened has happened."

If Jason Varitek had done the same thing, would loyal Bostonians call it a smart baseball play? Perhaps. Varitek is the kind of player who gets the benefit of the doubt. Not A-Rod -- ever.

And so, last night, in the bottom of the second, when J.D. Drew popped to third base with the bases loaded and two outs, the gleeful crowd, forgetting a moment their own team had squandered a significant scoring opportunity, immediately shouted, "Mine!" as A-Rod converged on the ball. A-Rod caught the pop fly and tossed it into the stands.

Naturally, the ball was thrown back.

Drew should have kissed the Yankees' third baseman. The lightning (A-)rod in pinstripes kept the heat from ricocheting in the direction of Boston's struggling right fielder.

Rodriguez nearly quieted the crowd in the top of the third when he smoked a line drive to left field. But A-Rod tried to stretch his hard single into a double and was thrown out easily at second by Manny Ramírez. These are the things that happen to him.

He isn't Derek Jeter, and that's hard enough. But even when he's better on the field, somehow his résumé still lacks the same luster.

After an absolutely torrid April in which he began the season with an 18-game hitting streak and hit a major league-leading 14 home runs, A-Rod came into this game after batting .235 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in May. His contributions last night: walk, single (and thrown out, 7-4, trying to stretch it to two), hit by pitch, ground out to shortstop, strikeout.

For anyone else, it would be uneventful. For A-Rod, who declined to comment on his Boston welcome, his every motion was met with guffaws, catcalls, and indignities.

"What's amazing is the fans thought about what they were going to do all day instead of enjoying the nice weather," observed former Sox favorite Johnny Damon. "They worried about that all day . . . but hey, if that floats their boat, then that's fine."

You wonder what A-Rod thinks when he retreats to his Boston hotel room. The Yankees have been losing, he is under tremendous scrutiny, and you wonder how much more he can take.

He will continue to hit -- he always does -- but will he ever get his arms around the rest of it? Clearly, A-Rod has the talent required to dance on the Big Stage.

You just wonder if he'll ever realize he's relying on all the wrong moves.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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