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A-Rod delivers in spring debut

TAMPA, Fla. -- Reggie Jackson has had Alex Rodriguez's back before, so it was no surprise to see the straws that stirred the drink past and present sitting together outside the New York Yankees' dugout in the top of the sixth, enjoying the sun as they faced the left-field board posting the most relevant score of the day.

Alex Rodriguez 1 hit. Rest of Yankees 0 hits.

On an 0-2 fastball from the Philadelphia Phillies' Kevin Slowey in the first at-bat of the rest of his spring training life, A-Rod had made up for two hapless cuts by singling over the shortstop's head. He would ground out to short on the next pitch he saw in the third inning, this one from Paul Clemens, and then he would lay off a full-count breaking ball from Ethan Martin to earn a walk in his final at-bat in the sixth.

It added up to a productive day for a defrocked superstar who stepped into the game like a middle-aged accountant steps into a fantasy camp -- just hoping to foul off a big-league fastball so he could go home and brag to his buddies about it.

"I felt like I was swinging under water," Rodriguez said of his first hack against an opposing pitcher since Sept. 25, 2013, before he got busted once again for doing business with the wrong chemist. "I was like, 'Man, it's been a long time.' It's been I guess, what, about a year and a half since I've been in the box? Yeah, it felt like a long time."

Rodriguez was greeted by a split of about 65 percent cheers, 35 percent boos when introduced with his teammates before the game, and the percentages kept moving in his favor with each appearance. Yes, he admitted to hearing the boos. He also admitted to being vulnerable enough to need the encouragement to lift him from a very dark place.

"Once you hit rock-bottom," A-Rod said, "any time you hear a few cheers these days it's a pleasant surprise."

But Jackson was one observer who wasn't focused on the public's reaction to Public Enemy No. 1. Even in the early hours of March, Mr. October cared more about Rodriguez's performance at the plate, his timing, his physical health and his ability (or lack thereof) to catch up to the speed of the game.

Jackson liked what he saw. And to the question of whether a 39-year-old Rodriguez can return in 2015 as at least a semi-dynamic hitter, Jackson had a perspective shared by nobody else in the park.

"When I was 39, I hit 27 home runs and drove in 85 and I hit .252," he said of his 1985 season with the California Angels. "I was our best player offensively. I played 143 games and I probably played too much.

"So you never know with Alex. He had a good at-bat the first time up, swung through a couple of fastballs and was right on time, just missed them. Next time up the fastball was a little bit low, hit the ball pretty good. And the last time up, the base on balls, he was on the off-speed pitches. He didn't look out of sync. I was watching his body and he looked pretty good for the first day."

Truth be told, the designated hitter looked better than most of his teammates in this 3-1 home-opening loss. It means nothing, of course, that the Yankees managed a mere five hits, and only one from a player expected to make their regular-season roster (A-Rod). It means nothing, of course, that Tuesday's game-tying three-run, ninth-inning homer from towering prospect Aaron Judge (think Blake Griffin in pinstripes and cleats) is all that separates the Yanks from the kind of 0-2 spring start that would've sent George Steinbrenner into a tizzy.

But what does mean something is the overall state of this team, now favored to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive year. The starting rotation is expected to keep the Yanks' doctor, Chris Ahmad, a lot busier than A-Rod's withdrawn lawsuit did, and Mark Teixeira's new gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free diet and Carlos Beltran's surgically repaired elbow are iffy propositions at best.

Scary as it sounds, you don't need to own an autographed copy of manager Joe Girardi's binder to see how this team might need A-Rod to overcome his rust and bum hips to hit like A-Rod hasn't hit in a long time.

"If he gives us something more than 20 homers and a .270 average," Jackson said, "then I think we're going to be happy, because when a guy with that kind of power hits for a .270 average, there's some damage in there."

Damage? Rodriguez still doesn't sound like he believes he's capable of doing damage. As he stepped into the fray in the first inning, A-Rod turned to Phillies catcher Tommy Joseph and plate umpire Marty Foster and said, "Take it easy on the old man. It's been a couple of years since I've been in the box."

A cute line from a nervous participant, yes, but Rodriguez has spent his entire camp sounding almost as skeptical about his odds of nailing this comeback as his most unforgiving critics. A-Rod wasn't kidding Wednesday when he said his goal was to just put the ball in play.

Rodriguez said everything about this day felt weird and unnatural to him. He said that he'll need two or three weeks to get a true sense of his progress, that he's having a ton of fun, and that "it's really a dream just to be back playing the game I love."

While waiting for his second at-bat near the on-deck circle, Rodriguez slid the weighted donut off his bat and danced a left-to-right, up-and-down jig. He does sometimes act like a little leaguer, even if he has done a lot of things in his adult life you'd never want any little leaguer to grow up and do.

Rodriguez would later talk about all the go-get-'em texts and emails he has received, and how he's been humbled by the support and love. As a show of good faith, Rodriguez spent part of Wednesday speaking the language of 2009, when he returned from his first steroid confessional and hip surgery to finally embrace a team-centric approach, forge a better relationship with Derek Jeter, and spread the pass-the-baton gospel he'd too often ignored.

"I don't know how I took that pitch," A-Rod said of the full-count curve that barely missed. "It was just nice to walk. I will say this: I think one of the keys this year for our offense is going to be the discipline in the ability to pass the baton and not try to do too much. But we do have enough in our lineup to score a lot of runs."

Do they? The Yankees' offense came up small last year, and the only big bat they added in the offseason is, you know, A-Rod. If you count him as a big bat.

"It's way too early to tell," Jackson said, "but the level of athlete is special. I see his reps and his batting practices every day, and I like what I see and I think he's in a great frame of mind."

Way back when, Jackson was among the precious few people in the organization who wasn't afraid to help A-Rod's frame of mind by approaching Jeter and asking the Captain to cut his frenemy a little slack, to bring him in from the cold. As a superstar who once felt the River Avenue freeze-out from Thurman Munson and Billy Martin, Jackson understood how the isolation could impact a ballplayer's focus.

Jeter is long gone now, and Rodriguez can't lean on Mr. October to solve his early March problems. "Alex's battles this year," Jackson said, "are his and his only."

Believe it or not, the Yankees might actually need the remains of Alex Rodriguez to win those battles, and win them decisively, if they want to play meaningful games in the fall.