BOSTON — He was supposed to be the Great Distraction. Alex Rodriguez is 39, coming off a year-long suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, and with three more years left on a bloated contract. Plus, Rodriguez is in a dispute over a $6 million bonus that the Yankees don’t want to pay him.

Yet, there was Rodriguez smiling in the Fenway Park visiting clubhouse before Sunday’s game, a beacon of calm and joy. He’s not dragging down the Yankees; he’s one of the big bats that have vaulted New York to a surprising seat atop the American League East.

“Just happy to be playing baseball,” Rodriguez said, using a mantra he repeats often.

And the Yankees are playing good baseball. They have solid-enough pitching, especially with a superior bullpen. But there is also offensive production from aging sluggers Rodriguez (.811 OPS, six home runs) and Mark Teixeira (.910, nine home runs).

“They have a number of veteran players who are performing pretty well,” Red Sox Manager John Farrell said. “They’re getting some timely hits, no bigger than Friday night.”

Farrell referred to Rodriguez’ eight-inning pinch-hit home run that beat Boston 3-2.

It was Rodriguez’s 660th career homer, tying him with Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list. It was supposed to trigger a $6 million bonus for Rodriguez, who already is owed $21 million this year.

But General Manager Brian Cashman said the Yankees are not obligated to pay the bonus. It’s considered a marketing bonus, and it’s hard for his team to promote Rodriguez’s power after his PED suspension.

Rodriguez was asked Sunday about Cashman’s comments. That smile came out.

“Family business,” he said.

But isn’t Rodriguez upset about it?

“That is nowhere near where my energy is,” Rodriguez said.


“Not at all. My energy from spring training has been all about baseball,” Rodriguez said.

“I don’t give (the bonus) much thought. My focus is … this guy (Boston starter Joe) Kelly throws 98 and I’m almost 40 years old. I better be focused.”

A focused Rodriguez is just part of New York’s success so far.

Entering Sunday’s game, New York’s starters were fifth in the American League in ERA (4.07) and the relievers were second (1.64).

“First and foremost, everything starts with pitching,” Yankees third baseman Chase Headley said.

“If you don’t pitch, it’s tough to win a lot of games. We’ve thrown the ball well and, obviously, our bullpen has been electric.”

That bullpen holds onto leads; the Yankees are 12-1 when they score first. The back end of the bullpen features Dellin Betances (0.00 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 142/3 innings) and Andrew Miller (0.00 ERA, 23 strikeouts in 131/3 innings, 10 saves).

Overall, the Yankees bullpen leads the majors with 115 strikeouts and a .157 opponents’ batting average.

“They have a bullpen full of power arms,” Farrell said. “Once they get a lead into the sixth inning, they’re going to a bullpen that is shortening games.”

Along with the sluggers and the pitchers, the Yankees feature as good a 1-2 atop the lineup as anyone, with Jacoby Ellsbury (.323 average, .400 on-base percentage) and Brett Gardner (.319/.405).

“Those two have really made them go,” Farrell said.

No one expected the Yankees to be going anywhere this season. Scan preseason predictions, and it’s hard to find anyone who put New York higher than third in the AL East.

“I don’t follow projections or people’s predictions very often,” Headley said. “But when I look around this clubhouse, I see a lot of ability, a lot of talent. It’s no surprise that we’re playing well.”

Of course, it’s early in the season. The Yankees were in first place at this time last year but eventually finished 12 games behind Baltimore.

But being in first, even this early, is still a surprise after so many dour predictions – especially those figuring that Rodriguez would be pulling the Yankees down, not pushing them ahead.

“I’m just happy to be playing baseball,” Rodriguez said.

“Honest. I’m in a good place … a year ago I wouldn’t be dreaming about talking to you guys about playing baseball and enjoying the game so much.”

And he kept smiling.