DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There's nothing like a stern lecture from Mr. October to help a troubled friend focus on the priorities of life and career when enormous distractions are closing in and his reputation is crumbling.

"Hit the baseball and hit it when it counts," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson told Alex Rodriguez at dinner on Tuesday night. "That's really about all that matters now."

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The dark cloud that has been hovering over the Yankees third baseman since he confessed on Feb. 9 to a past use of steroids gave way to puffy cumulus and a bright sunshine on Wednesday at Dunedin Stadium.

In the fourth inning, A-Rod, after walking in the first, smacked a two-run homer off Toronto left-hander Ricky Romero. Rodriguez jogged around the bases as many in the crowd of 5,014 stood to applaud, some of whom were no doubt guilty of boos and derogatory remarks earlier on the beautiful afternoon.

Hit the baseball and hit it when it counts!

There could be no better advice for Rodriguez if he is going to pick up the pieces and rebuild whatever he has to rebuild.

All is not forgiven. He tarnished his image and damaged baseball when he turned to steroids from 2001-03 while with the Texas Rangers.

Even Jackson, who says he considers Rodriguez a close friend, is extremely disappointed.

But on Day 1 of A-Rod's escape from the ashes, he succeeded.

He had two walks and the homer in the Yankees' 6-1 victory. It might have been damage control at its best, but he was pleasant and happy following the game.

After accommodating a large media gathering and wearing a red-and-black jogging suit, he hurried to a fenced-in corner near left field and signed autographs for 10-12 minutes.

Then, he got in the backseat of a dark red Chevy Suburban for the trip back to the Yankees' home base of Tampa.

"It was nice to be out there playing baseball again," Rodriguez said during his postgame analysis, admitting before the game he feared the worst. "That's what I do. It's the place I feel most relaxed.

"I thought the fans were OK. I'd like to invite a bunch of them out to Fenway this summer."

I asked him what his thoughts were as he made the trip from Tampa as his personal countdown to the first game approached.

"I didn't have many thoughts," he said. "It was just a Spring Training game. For me, I was just excited to be able to go out and do what I do best, which is play baseball.

"Everything else is confusing. But baseball is what I feel best and what I get paid to do. I just hope that's the start of something real special for us this year."

Matter-of-factly, A-Rod mentioned he had dinner with Jackson on Tuesday night, but didn't elaborate other than to jest, "Reggie was probably one of those guys booing me."

Reggie said he spent time with Yankees general partner Hank Steinbrenner on Tuesday.


"Edit your own story with the bat, and as long as Alex does that, he's got a chance to change things."
-- Reggie Jackson, on
Alex Rodriguez

"'You deliver this message,' [Steinbrenner] said sternly to me. 'You tell him to hit the damn ball and hit it when it counts,'" Jackson said. "Yes, that's really the most important thing Alex can do at this stage. All the other conversations, they don't matter. The more you talk, the more you have an opportunity to make a mistake or say something stupid or something you can go trace.

"My dad used to say you can control the story as long as you still get a chance to hit. Take the bat away and you start running your mouth, you're going to get in trouble. Edit your own story with the bat, and as long as Alex does that, he's got a chance to change things."

Jackson says it remains to be seen if Rodriguez will be able to block out the distractions.

"It goes day to day," he says. "If things don't change and this is the only battle he has to fight, he'll win that. What you worry about is that he's got an uphill battle with things coming at him. It's not going to be easy.

"If the story unravels cleanly, he'll get through it. He'll have the support of the team. He's got to have an outstanding year. What we saw today is his ability to concentrate and the fan reaction wasn't that bad -- way more positive than negative."

With each new revelation the story gets a new life, a new distraction. In mid-April, Selena Roberts, the Sports Illustrated reporter who broke the story on Feb. 7 that Rodriguez used steroids those three years, will publish a book on his life. That obviously will fuel more speculation, more questions.

Jackson says, "When I started playing, I was a fan; when I played, I was a fan; and when I left the game, I remained a fan. I'm still a fan, so I get affected as a fan [when stories such as A-Rod using steroids surface]. I am saddened by it."

As for Rodriguez, Jackson added, "I'm disappointed, but Alex is a player I have feelings for."

Manager Joe Girardi said "this era we went through, none of us are proud of. To me, you show your displeasure of what has happened in the game in a respectful way."

Then, he quite possibly summed up the day best: "I can't pretend to know what it's like to be in Alex's shoes."

Reggie says, all he has to do is hit the ball ... when it counts.