NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Alex Rodriguez listened to the cheers and waved his cap. He worked out an eight-pitch walk, lined an opposite-field single into right field and flied out.
After all the huffing and puffing, a grievance, multiple lawsuits and public threats, followed by the inevitable apology, seemingly scripted contrition and never-ending genuflection, A-Rod was back with the Yankees, in pinstripes, in front of the not-quite adoring but forever-forgiving fans on a sunny opening day.
“I do appreciate the reception,” A-Rod said. “I have to admit, it definitely felt good, that’s for sure. I’ve got a long history here. … I have a lot of love for the city of New York, especially our fans. But let’s make it clear: The fans don’t owe me anything.”
Back from an unprecedented season-long drug suspension, Rodriguez received a loud ovation and, for a designated hitter, a rare shout-out from the Bleacher Creatures. He was dropped to seventh in the batting order during the regular season for the first time in 19 years and he went 1 for 2 Monday in a 6-1 loss to Toronto.
“It means the world to me,” he said during a string of saccharine postgame comments. “I don’t think I ever took it for granted, but I can guarantee you I won’t take this year for granted.”
His 40th birthday approaches in July, and many of the old faces have left the clubhouse. CC Sabathia moved into Derek Jeter’s old stall adjacent to the back door leading to the inner sanctum, and Brian McCann took over Mariano Rivera’s locker in the middle of the room, the one occupied by David Robertson last year.
Rodriguez is the senior Yankee on a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 2009 and has missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons.
He admitted in 2009 using performance-enhancing drugs while with Texas in 2001-03, but said then he has transformed into Mr. Clean. He made himself out to be a hobbledehoy, used “young and stupid” as his mantra, said at a news conference in front of his teammates, “The only thing I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward.”
And then Major League Baseball caught him in 2013. An arbitrator concluded there was “clear and convincing evidence” Rodriguez used three banned substances and twice tried to obstruct the sport’s drug investigation.
After serving his ban, he issued a handwritten statement taking “full responsibility for the mistakes” without detailing what those errors were. He did tell federal investigators he used steroids, according to a lawyer for the University of Miami’s former pitching coach.
New York owes him $61 million for the final three seasons of his contract, and his relationship with management was tense heading into spring training. In the gift shop behind home plate, Rodriguez was “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Jerseys were for sale with “Gregorius,” ”Tanaka,” ”Ellsbury,” ”McCann” and “Sabathia” across the top of the back, but Rodriguez’s 13 was in the group with just numbers — though to be fair, Jeter’s No. 2 was available with and without the name.
Rodriguez was greeted with mostly cheers and some boos when introduced before the game as players lined up on the field, his image larger than life on the center-field videoboard. The Bleacher Creatures loudly chanted “A-Rod!” several times from their right-field seats during their first-inning roll call, even though they don’t normally include the DH.
“It’s not typical,” Creatures leader “Bald Vinny” Milano said in an email to The Associated Press. “Just figured he could use a bit of support. It’s always good to know someone is in your corner.”
Watching from the dugout, Rodriguez doffed his hat twice and nodded his head.
New York trailed 5-0 when he came to the plate leading off the third inning, A-Rod’s first plate appearance since he struck out against Tampa Bay’s David Price on Sept. 25, 2013. He hadn’t hit this low during the regular season since May 7, 1996 — though Joe Torre famously dropped him to eighth at Detroit in the 2006 playoffs.
On the eighth pitch of the plate appearance, Rodriguez took a 91 mph fastball from Drew Hutchison and became New York’s first baserunner. He singled to right-center on another full-count fastball leading off the fifth and flied out in the seventh against reliever Aaron Loup, when fans in the bleachers held up large letters and numbers that spelled out “#-F-O-R-G-1-V-3” with the “3” backward to resemble an “E.”
“I was actually a little bit more nervous opening day in spring training,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of opening days, but for me this is probably the most special.”
Rodriguez has 654 career homers and needs six to tie Willie Mays for fourth place, which likely would trigger litigation with the Yankees over whether he is owed a $6 million payment under a marketing deal.
New York hopes he regains his old form, the one that led to three AL MVP awards. But he hasn’t been an offensive force since 2010, withered by injuries to his hips and other body parts.
At this point in his career he may be more character actor than star. This season may determine whether that is enough for Rodriguez and New York.
“I think we live in a society that gives people second and third chances — fourth, fifth,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We live in a society that pulls for people to come back and make something of their lives.”
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