TRENTON, N.J. — A seemingly relaxed Alex Rodriguez re-joined the New York Yankees’ Double-A farm team on Friday for what might be his final games before a lengthy suspension from Major League Baseball.
The 38-year-old third baseman smiled a lot, met his temporary teammates on the Trenton Thunder and shook hands with coaches after stepping on the field at 4:13 p.m. He walked on a 3-1 pitch in his first at-bat.
Rodriguez did not field questions from a massive media contingent before taking batting practice, throwing and fielding ground balls in a 30-minute preparation for the game against the Reading Fightin Phils.
Rodriguez’s second appearance with the Thunder this season drew a crowd that was close to a sellout of about 7,000. What was missing was tons of A-Rod uniform tops.
While there were a couple of A-Rod jerseys in the stands, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira tops were sprinkled in along with some from the Philadelphia Phillies.
Matt Kowalski, 30, of Mount Laurel, N.J. was wearing one of those Rodriguez uniforms.
“I live 20 minutes away, and it could be the last chance to see him play,” said Kowalski, a Yankees’ fan. “It’s kind of hard to not come out. I’m afraid something’s pending. That’s the rumor at least.”
Kowalski was somewhat forgiving when asked about A-Rod’s problems.
“It’s hard not to appreciate what A-Rod did for the Yankees,” he said. “Anyone who turns a blind eye to 2009 is kidding themselves. They don’t win a ring in 2009 without him, so it’s hard to forget that.”
Thunder manager Tony Franklin did not think Rodriguez’s presence would be a distraction.
“Our guys understand the circumstances around this,” he said. “It’s all about baseball for our guys. One thing about baseball players is when the game they have a unique ability to separate what’s on the field from what’s off the field.”
It was hard not to notice Rodriguez’s every step. Cameramen and reporters stared at him, and they looked over his shoulder as he signed autographs 20 minutes before the first pitch.
The three-time American League MVP, coming back from January hip surgery, is starting a second minor league injury rehabilitation assignment, this time for a strained quadriceps. New York says he’ll also play for Trenton on Saturday, and he hopes to join the Yankees quickly.
Having him join New York for Sunday’s series finale in San Diego seems unlikely, making Monday’s series opener against the Chicago White Sox a more probable target.
But he may be suspended by then for his relationship with Biogenesis of America, an anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs.
Franklin said Rodriguez was to get three at-bats Friday night. A-Rod planned to hold a news conference 30 minutes after being taken out of the game.
“I expect him to be productive in this lineup,” Franklin said of a player with 647 career home runs in the bigs. “We’re in a pennant race, and I say it jokingly, but I look for the same effort he always gives. He’s the consummate professional when it comes to playing the game. The game means everything to him.”
Franklin joked Rodriguez could keep up the tradition of buying a spread for the players to eat after the game.
On a more serious note, he said Rodriguez is “a regular guy” who can impart a lot to his players. He also wanted to see him in action.
“I love watching him play,” Franklin said. “I am still a fan of baseball and watching him play on the baseball field is what I enjoy.”
Whether baseball lets Rodriguez continue doing that should be decided in the next couple of days.