For A-Rod, so far, so good

TAMPA, Fla. -- As a slugger known for doing whatever he damn well pleased, Alex Rodriguez was always one to rage against the machine. So when he faced an actual machine Monday -- a mechanical device pumping in 90-mph fastballs -- Rodriguez was expected to defy his age and injuries and rust, and give at least one pitch a good, long ride.

But no, as the New York Yankees' honest-to-God cleanup hitter in pinstriped pants, A-Rod could only produce a second-pitch chopper to third in his first at-bat, and a first-pitch pop to short right field in his second and final at-bat in an intrasquad scrimmage that wasn't exactly defined by an October urgency or pace.

In between, Rodriguez sat for the longest time outside the dugout and under a baking sun as if he couldn't wait to get back in the box -- as part of a team, any team -- for the first time since September 2013.

Rodriguez will have to wait for Wednesday to face a flesh-and-blood pitcher, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided against putting his designated hitter on the travel roster for Tuesday's spring opener against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater. Girardi asked A-Rod if he'd be good to go for the second game against the Phillies, A-Rod nodded, and the most infamous suspended Yankee since George Steinbrenner himself will make his return at George M. Steinbrenner Field as a designated hitter who has been designated for this most unlikely assignment:

To become the lethal weapon he hasn't been in a long, long time.

"That's what we're hoping for," Girardi said, "that he can provide some offensive punch to our lineup. I know it's a tall order. We know that. I mean, he's 39 and a half years old, two hip surgeries. But I don't ever count anyone out."

Girardi is hardly the only Yankee who comes across as a non-believer when measuring the odds that Rodriguez will be a healthy and significant force in 2015. GM Brian Cashman has refused to give any forecast on Rodriguez's production to come, and A-Rod hasn't exactly sounded like a man confident he'll be even half the player he used to be.

But that's Part 2 of the comeback. It's the most meaningful part by a country mile for this simple reason: If Rodriguez can't hit big league pitching, who cares how remorseful he feels about using performance-enhancing drugs again and again and again after challenging "the American people" to start judging him anew following his confession in 2009?

A-Rod was barely worth the trouble when he was slamming the ball all over the yard in his prime. If he's nothing more than an old and broken athlete now, that $61 million he's owed will feel heavier than the $275 million the Yanks signed on to give him seven years ago.

Those are the terms of Rodriguez's re-engagement. And yet they don't nullify his success in Part 1 of the comeback; not yet, anyway. That part revolves around A-Rod's ability, or lack thereof, to reintegrate himself into the Yankees' clubhouse and culture without making a complete mess of everything.

Asked Monday how Rodriguez has made the transition back into the work environment, Girardi said, "I think it's been good. I think he has come into camp and, for him, he's tried to just fit in and be one of the guys, which is fairly normal for him in our clubhouse.

"People don't see him the way that we see him on a daily basis, but I don't really see a huge difference in the way he is. Guys are comfortable being around him. He makes people laugh. That's kind of what he does."

Yes, Rodriguez could have alerted team officials last week that he was showing up a few days early to work out at the minor league facility, but that was a jaywalking offense unworthy of the felonious response. Otherwise, without any real organizational support, A-Rod handled crowds of reporters and autograph seekers at that facility with relative ease before taking his spot in the far corner of the big league clubhouse here and keeping it simple and low.

Rodriguez hasn't done anything reckless or said anything silly, and he agreed to face daily questioning from the media -- always dangerous terrain for him -- before making himself unavailable for the first time following Monday's lost duel in the sun with the pitching machine. A journalist isn't trained to concede this, but really, there's nothing left for Rodriguez to say until he faces a human being on the mound.

Unless, of course, he's saying he's sorry to one of the many people he wronged and/or betrayed by taking his pharmacological shortcuts through the labs of Anthony Bosch, the baron of Biogenesis. To his apology tour Rodriguez just added Don Hooton, president of the anti-doping Taylor Hooton Foundation, who had accepted A-Rod as a spokesman after the disgraced slugger admitted using PEDs in 2009.

Hooton told ESPNNewYork.com that Rodriguez called him Sunday afternoon to say he is sorry for "exercising poor judgment and for making bad decisions that hurt the Yankees, Major League Baseball and our foundation." Hooton said he wasn't doing any grandstanding, just updating the record after disclosing last week that A-Rod had never apologized to his organization for his misdeeds.

Another positive baby step for the former bonus baby who trashed his own legacy and good name. If those are things Rodriguez can never recover, he can still try to help the Yankees win games over the next year, or two, or three.

Chances are, that won't happen. Chances are, A-Rod's body is too far gone. But before he ever got to Part 2 of his comeback, the more difficult and relevant part, he had to survive Part 1.

Rodriguez has done that to date. He's putting in his work, taking the grounders and pop-ups Girardi wants him to take at first base, and fighting a winning fight against the natural urge to make a spectacle of himself.

A-Rod doesn't deserve a medal for that. Just a chance to see if he can hit the ball like nobody believes he can.