TAMPA, Fla. -- Like millions of baseball fans who see an aging, disgraced, surgically repaired ballplayer coming off a long suspension, Alex Rodriguez does not believe he can pull this off, either. You can see it in his actions. You can hear it in his words.
Remember, Rodriguez never trusted his work ethic and God-given ability to begin with, and his insecurities compelled him to use performance-enhancing drugs again and again and again. Throw in the fact that he hasn't played since September 2013, that he's staring down the barrel of his 40th birthday and that he knows the sport and his own organization would prefer it if the pariah wearing unlucky No. 13 just disappeared for keeps, and you have a man who has no idea if he can ever again hit big league heat.
"I wish it was as easy as hitting Danilo's 55 mph fastball," Rodriguez said of Danilo Valiente, his batting practice pitcher for the day. "We can all look like an All-Star at that point. We'll see what happens when you have a guy throwing 95 miles an hour."
That's Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, a man with 654 home runs and 1,969 RBIs to his name, sounding like a high school sophomore wondering if he's good enough to make the JV. And nothing he did during his first round of infield and batting practice Thursday disabused skeptics of the notion Rodriguez will be anything but a broken-down liability with a slow bat and slower feet.
Sure, his 32 swings produced a few balls sent whistling over the George M. Steinbrenner Field walls, and his glove and arm appeared workable at third base and in some irrelevant cameos at shortstop (we promise it meant nothing, Captain Jeter, wherever you are). The safe bet still says Rodriguez has no shot of even approaching the numbers he produced during his last big season in 2010, in which he hit .270 with 30 homers and 125 RBIs in 137 games.
That was the Rodriguez relying on underground pharmacology, of course, and the presumably clean Rodriguez can't possibly keep up five years later, right?
Right. Only here's the thing about A-Rod's 2015 season, now that general manager Brian Cashman has guaranteed him a spot, if healthy, on the Opening Day roster:
Whether you hate him or hate him (just kidding, Alex), Rodriguez would represent a remarkable story if he returns from his suspension and two hip surgeries to help drive the Yankees back to the playoffs for the first time since Joe Girardi started benching him in the fall of 2012. Fans got in the fan business, and sports media members got in the sports media business, to watch athletes do things nobody thought could be done.
So what the hell, I'll root for the best possible story here, and that story has Rodriguez remaining healthy and drug-free and hitting Justin Verlander's fastballs harder than he hit Danilo Valiente's on Thursday. What would a productive A-Rod mean to a Yankees team desperate to revive an offense that reminded people last year of old-school Big Ten football -- you know, 3 yards and a cloud of dust?
"It would be huge," Girardi said, "because when you look at it, a lot of our bats are left-handed. He gives us a lot more balance."
This was about the most positive thing Girardi has said about his DH and backup third and first baseman. Unlike in 2013, when the manager protected the accused Rodriguez and his presumption of innocence, Girardi has faced A-Rod questions recently with the expression of a man waiting on a trip to the proctologist.
Cashman, too. He would love nothing more than to uncover some hidden escape clause in Rodriguez's contract that would allow him to spend the $61 million owed A-Rod over the next three seasons on younger, more upstanding Yanks.
But that's less likely to happen than a Derek Jeter comeback. The Yankees were stuck with Rodriguez and the accompanying noise at their minor league facility for a few days, and they were stuck with him Thursday at the big-boy facility, where a small crowd gave him a warmer welcome than it gave any of his teammates.
Paired with a non-roster invitee, Jonathan Galvez, at third base, Rodriguez whiffed on one grounder that he later retrieved and flipped to a young boy in the stands. His body looked a little doughy, and his swing looked a little long, but all in all, A-Rod handled himself fine for an old man returning from an endless layoff to play a boy's game.
Rodriguez repeated that he felt like a nervous teenager just hoping to make Lou Piniella's team in Seattle. "This is a hard thing I'm trying to do," he said. It's especially hard when Freddy Garcia threw the only live pitching A-Rod faced in the offseason.
"I think he can be a lot better than everyone expects," maintained Mark Teixeira, who established a 30-homer, 100-RBI season as his own goal. Asked what would be a realistic expectation for Rodriguez, Teixeira said, "I think he could do the same. I saw his batting practice today. Not many guys are hitting the ball like he is today."
With a smile, Rodriguez retreated and almost passed out at his locker when told of Teixeira's forecast before saying, "I'm glad he's confident. I like those numbers for him."
A-Rod later conceded that he fears the consequences of failure, and on his walk out of the ballpark he listened with great interest while one reporter told him about Sugar Ray Leonard's epic victory over Marvin Hagler (after a three-year layoff), and another told him about a 40-year-old Brett Favre leading the Minnesota Vikings to within one win of the Super Bowl one year after badly injuring his throwing shoulder as a New York Jet.
"I've looked at [Michael] Jordan and other [older] guys who have played well," Rodriguez had said earlier. "I know that Jordan played all 82 games in basketball at the age of 39 or 40, so I think in today's day and age anything is possible."
Just about, anyway. Can a 39-year-old Tiger Woods finally come all the way back from his scandal and injuries to win another major? Can a 39-year-old Alex Rodriguez rise from the rubble of a career and reputation he destroyed to win the Yankees that second American League wild-card spot?
Those are the questions that make the sports world go round. When he was done with the first day of his final baseball chapter, Rodriguez was asked what he would tell his daughters about the experience.
"It was like going to Disney World," he said.
No, A-Rod's ending won't make for any Disney movie. But against all odds, it might make for one fairly remarkable story.