By Jason Keidel
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Since the Metropolitans have assumed their ancestral place near last place, the spotlight is burning on the Yankees for the rest of the season. And as we dissect the Bronx Bombers, everyone wants to know when Alex Rodriguez will return to the lineup, presumably because he is so vital to their playoff prosperity. “Depth to the lineup” is the catchphrase catching fire these days.

In truth, A-Rod has been on a profound decline since he carried the Yanks to their last title in 2009. He hasn’t batted .300 since 2008, and he has hit .270, .276 and .276 over his last three seasons. He had just 16 homers in 428 plate appearances last season and has 15 homers in 400 plate appearances this season. Yet you won’t see him demand a pay cut.

Every time Sports Illustrated posts a poll of MLB players asking who the most overrated player in the sport is, A-Rod is invariably beaming from the pole position (with Derek Jeter, for some reason, often grabbing second place). In their most recent poll, A-Rod was also branded the phoniest player on the planet. The contempt is universal, and not without merit.

In case you forget why No. 13 is so unlucky in live, let’s breeze through his finer moments.

During a spastic Latrell Sprewell, “I can’t feed my family on $21 million” moment, he opted out of his $252 million deal during the 2007 World Series, during the live broadcast, no less.

He also opted out knowing he cheated, and even insisted on incentive bonuses based on breaking records, obviously knowing he cheated while breaking them.

He shot equine cocktails into his tan tush for at least three years — does anyone really believe it started and stopped in Texas? –- and then lied about it on “60 Minutes,” his famous “yes” nod while saying “no” to Katie Couric. Eventually, Selena Roberts stalked him into submission, forcing his fake contrition at the infamous press conference during Spring Training, flanked by “supportive” teammates who grinded their teeth through the whole affair while quietly applauding the mea culpa and public humiliation.

He put Jeter on blast in Esquire many moons ago, the very article that formed that fissure between the former best friends for a decade. Even today, with oceans under the bridge, it’s clear that Jeter tolerates Rodriguez more than embraces him.

He has a robust poker appetite, often playing in “underground” games with fellow stars such as Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. Gambling is quite legal, yet he must do it illegally.

He flew a stripper around North America while his wife was either pregnant or caring for his children. Nice. Perhaps his kids can get a group discount with Tiger Woods’ offspring on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Basically, phony is the phrase that best describes Rodriguez, or at least the public’s perception of him. Everything seems synthetic, scripted and rehearsed, as though he practiced his responses in front of a mirror for hours — something cynics would say he does daily no matter his media requirements.

A-Rod is also a physical, metaphysical and financial anvil around the Yankees’ necks for the next five years. The fact that his resume is freckled with epic foibles doesn’t help. He’s not a miscreant in the Dez Bryant vein; he’s just a jerk.

Rodriguez received $32 million in 2009 and 2010, $31 million in 2011 and $29 million this year; he’ll receive $28 million in 2013, $25 million in 2014, $21 million in 2015 and $20 million in each of the final two years. (None of this includes the $185.45 million he made from his prior deal, the one he voided to sign the new, $275 million contract.) Does anyone think he’s worth half that quid anymore? And where will the Yankees hide him on the field and in the lineup as his legs, glove and bat evaporate?

Rodriguez could receive an additional $6 million each for five milestones that the team designates as historic achievements. They are contemplated to be tying the home-run levels of Willie Mays (660), Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds. And if he were to break Bonds’ Major League record, he would know that he, like Bonds, doped his way to the mountaintop.

And now we know he will be yet another juicer whose malfeasance will stain and synthesize the record books. How would you like to be a fly on some Cooperstown wall while they ponder A-Rod’s fate? You could argue that not only is he in the same boat as Bonds and Roger Clemens in that he was a Hall of Famer without the juice, but he may have been more talented than both of them.

He was that good. And he was that greedy.

And yet, I don’t really care. Neither do most Yankees fans. Like you, I just want him to perform. And my like or dislike for the man is commensurate to his ability to help my beloved Bombers win a ring. But the man is nearly impossible to like, unless you’re a family member.

Actually, especially if you’re a family member.

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After all these years of controversy, what is your opinion of A-Rod? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…

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