TAMPA – There have been many great comeback stories in sports.
George Foreman returned to the ring at age 38 after a 10-year retirement. At 45, Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion.
Michael Jordan quit the NBA in the height of his career after winning three titles. He returned to the Association two years later and led his team to another three championships.
And Mario Lemieux was forced to retire from the NHL in 1997 because he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But he overcome it and returned to league in 2000.
This comeback, however, might be the most-documented and overanalyzed this country has seen. Without question, there will be many eyes on Alex Rodriguez this coming season.And with good reason.
Rodriguez, the New York Yankees’ star third baseman, returns to MLB after a one-year ban for taking performance enhancing drugs. It was the longest suspension in baseball history. Originally it was 210 games, but was later reduced to 162 games.
For a player a few months shy of his 40th birthday and hobbled the previous few years with hip injuries, it’s not that easy to return to a sport after so much time away. It’s almost unheard of, especially since many believe the hardest thing to do in sports in hitting a baseball.
Rodriguez’s comeback- rebirth, if you will – started on Wednesday afternoon at Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees took on the Philadelphia Phillies.
For sure, it had to feel like his first at-bat in the big leagues. After all, it was Rodriguez’s first at-bat since Sept. 25, 2013. In baseball time, that’s an eternity.
Regardless of all that he had accomplished in his long career, A-Rod had to question his ability to still play at a high level. It’s like starting over, being brand new. “Stepping in the box with my metal cleats, that felt pretty weird,” Rodriguez said.
And the only thing that had to be more nerve-wrecking than that first at-bat to kick start his career was the reception from the crowd when he was introduced on the public address system. “Yet, I was a little nervous,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I put on the pinstripes. It’s definitely fun to have them back on.”
And, you can bet, A-Rod had to expect the worst and hope for the best. Fortunately for him, he got the best. Rodriguez got a loud ovation – with a few boos mixed in – as he walked to the plate. “Anytime I hear a few cheers these days, it’s a pleasant surprise,” Rodriguez said.
It was actually good to hear fans supporting A-Rod because it’s the same reaction others – including Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz – have gotten in their returns in the steroid scandal.
Rodriguez isn’t alone in this battle to save his career. He still has many friends. “For me, the most incredible thing has been all the good luck texts, emails, good wishes I received from so many people,” he said. “I never dreamed I’d get this kind of support. That part has been humbling and motivating.”
A-Rod swung through two 91 miles-per-hour fastballs from Phillies’ starter Kevin Slowey in his first at-bat. Quickly, he was behind in the count 0-2. The third pitch was 89MPH fastball. Rodriguez delivered a line single to left field.
Enter cheers from the crowd and a smile on A-Rod’s face.
“I was just happy I made contact,” said A-Rod, who went 1-for-2 with a walk in the Yankees’ 3-1 loss to the Phillies. “And I was pleasantly surprised it was a base hit.”
Manager Joe Girardi was happy for his designated hitter. “It’s probably the first spring training game that he felt a little anxious,” he said.
Nonetheless, it’s a start on a long journey that will take time. But it’s hard to argue that getting a hit in his first at-bat takes off a lot of pressure. Imagine the scrutiny and the headlines if A-Rod started his comeback 0-for-12 or something.
People would say he’s done, he has nothing left.
This is not the case. Rather, it allows Rodriguez to relax and just go out and play.
That’s what A-Rod needs now more than anything. He needs at-bats. He needs to play the field at first or third. Rodriguez needs time to regain some form in a game he once dominated.
“It’s a dream to be back playing the game I love,” Rodriguez said. “I feel blessed.”
A much needed ingredient in such a major comeback.