TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez made his highly anticipated return to the New York Yankees on Monday afternoon and in a little more than an hour provided the answers to two key questions: There is a segment of the Yankees' fan base that still loves him, and he can still hit the ball over a major league fence.
Other than that, A-Rod said little in an eight-minute session with reporters outside the Yankees' minor league complex across the road from their main spring training site in Tampa. And even the questions that were answered came with caveats: The crowd of fans who waited for him at the gate came armed with bats, balls and posters for him to sign, which he obligingly did, and the long balls -- six of Rodriguez's 71 swings resulted in balls clearing the left-field fence -- came at the expense of a batting practice pitcher who laid the ball in right where A-Rod likes it.
It said nothing about whether he still can hit big league pitching after nearly two years out of the game, nor what reception he should expect once he appears before a full house at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.
"It's always an adventure," Rodriguez said. "The first day is definitely going to be a little nervous, excited. There will be energy in the building, that's for sure."
Energy was coursing throughout George M. Steinbrenner Field from the morning, when rumors began to circulate that Rodriguez was on his way to work out at the minor league complex two days before Yankees regulars are scheduled to report to camp. The energy crescendoed into a mini-media frenzy when it turned out Rodriguez was, in fact, at the main compound. The Yankees had ordered him to take a physical before taking the field after baseball writers informed the team he was on his way in.
Around 1 p.m., Rodriguez emerged from the inner sanctum of the Yankees' medical offices wearing a green University of Miami sweatsuit, exchanged greetings with several reporters and left with two members of the team's security staff. He drove across to the minor league complex in a white SUV and, carrying his bats over his shoulder, entered the facility while the large media contingent, barred from the field, scurried for vantage points beyond the outfield fence.
Soon afterward, Rodriguez began a 61-minute workout that included some medicine ball tossing, fielding a few grounders at third base and shortstop, then a lengthy batting practice session in which he sent half a dozen balls over the left- and left-center field fence. He also hit several sharply hit line drives.
After hitting, Rodriguez ran a few half-speed "sprints" of approximately 120 feet alongside a team trainer before knocking off for the day. Around 3 p.m., he emerged again in the green sweatsuit and began driving out in his SUV but stopped as he reached the gate, which was crowded with fans on one side and media on the other.
Rodriguez waded into the crowd and spent about 15 minutes signing autographs for fans, many of whom wore Yankees gear and identified themselves as from New York City, Long Island and Connecticut. One woman was visibly trembling as she posed for a picture with him, and a young man approached him with a backpack on which he had written: "A-ROD: APOLOGY ACCEPTED."
After finishing up with a man who said he was holding one of the balls that had been hit over the fence, Rodriguez turned to the media horde to field questions for the first time since being handed an unprecedented 162-game suspension for PED use in connection with baseball's Biogenesis investigation.
Asked point-blank whether he was currently using any banned substances, Rodriguez said, "No." But when asked what he had actually done to warrant the suspension -- and for which he issued a handwritten apology on Tuesday -- A-Rod declined to provide specifics.
"Right now I'm just focused on making this team," he said. "Obviously it was a rough year, but I'm very excited that's behind me and I have a chance to hopefully make this team."
Asked whether he thought he could succeed without resorting once again to using illegal PEDs, Rodriguez was somewhat coy: "I'm confident that if I stay healthy, I can do some good things."
Despite having three years and $61 million in salary left on his contract -- and a possible $30 million more in home run milestone bonuses that the Yankees have said they would contest having to pay -- Rodriguez's role on the team is very much in doubt, especially after the Yankees signed Chase Headley to a four-year contract this winter with the promise he would be the everyday third baseman.
In addition, both general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi have said Rodriguez would be competing for at-bats in camp, likely as a designated hitter mainly against left-handed pitching. It would mark the first time in nearly 20 years Rodriguez has come to a spring training camp without a guaranteed job or a spot in the lineup.
"It reminds me of when I was 18 years old and I was trying to make Lou Piniella's [Seattle Mariners] team," Rodriguez said. "I'm excited. I love to compete. I'm here a couple days early to get a jump start. I love baseball. I just love to be in uniform and I'm so grateful to have an opportunity to be back in uniform."
Rodriguez, who will turn 40 in July, said that the long period of inactivity -- his last game for the Yankees was on Sept. 13, 2013 -- might actually benefit him.
"I think for me, the time off was good," he said. "Naturally it was the first time I got a chance to rest a full year in my career. I got a chance to train, versus rehab. I feel good, I'm healthy and ready to go."
Rodriguez has not played close to a full season since 2012, when he batted .272 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs in 122 games. Since then, he has undergone the second of two surgeries for a torn hip labrum, one on each side, and sat out the entire 2014 season for his involvement with Biogenesis and its recently jailed founder, Anthony Bosch.
Asked what he would have done differently over the past two years, Rodriguez said, "We don't have time for that. There were plenty of mistakes along the way. I cringe sometimes when I look at some of the things I did, but I paid my penalty and I'm grateful that I have another opportunity."
And after a long legal battle to appeal the suspension that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and ultimately $25 million in lost salary, Rodriguez sidestepped the question of whether the penalty turned out to be justified.
"That's not for me to say," he said. "I know that I served the time, tried to use my time productively and I'm trying to make the team. No mistake that I've made has any good answer or a justification. It's unexplainable, and that's on me. I've dug a big hole for myself and paid a price. I'm fortunate for a lot of people -- especially the commissioner's office, the players' union and the Yankees -- to give me an opportunity to play the game that I love."
Rodriguez said he expected to be welcomed back by his teammates -- "I have a lot of good relationships in there," he said -- but could not say the same about the Yankees' front office, which has been less-than-welcoming in its public statements.
At a Yankee Stadium meeting last week in which Rodriguez apologized to his bosses, he was informed that some the actions of him and his supporters during the appeal "would not be forgotten," and that the Yankees would contest the paying of any of his $6 million home run bonuses, the first of which is due when he reaches the 660 hit by Willie Mays, only six home runs away.
"I don't know; you'd have to ask them," Rodriguez said when asked to describe the state of his relationship with the Yankees. "I created a big headache for a lot of people, so I don't blame whoever is mad at me. I understand."
"From my end it's going to be, he's going to show up like everyone else," Cashman said. "It's different from [the media's] end. Obviously, he'll be the focus you guys will want to get access to. But from a baseball operations standpoint, he'll be coming in with everybody else. He'll be in his hitting group, and he'll be in his fielding group, and stretching and all that stuff on the conditioning side of it. He'll be treated like any other player."
But on his first day back in Yankees camp, Alex Rodriguez showed once again why he is anything but.