02/25/09 6:10 PM EST
In spring opener, A-Rod goes deep
Embattled slugger fights off crowd hostility with homer off Romero
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
That approach worked just fine for him back in 2007, when he secured his third American League Most Valuable Player Award. But Rodriguez can't forget an important ingredient -- hitting some baseballs a very long way.
Rodriguez answered the catcalls on Wednesday by belting a two-run homer in his first official at-bat of the Grapefruit League campaign, clubbing a fourth-inning shot to left-center field off Blue Jays left-hander Ricky Romero.
"Everything else is confusing, but baseball is what I do best," Rodriguez said after the Yankees' 6-1 victory. "It's what I get paid to do. I'm just happy to be doing it again."
The homer turned out to be a called shot of sorts -- in a pregame conversation with Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo, Rodriguez predicted that he would hit a roundtripper his second time up.
Rodriguez also walked twice in the contest, but as he played his first game since admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03 while with the Texas Rangers, most observers were more interested in what the embattled superstar might hear from the crowd of 5,014.
The reception was mixed during batting practice and pregame introductions. "Where's your cousin?" one fan called out, referring to Yuri Sucart, whom Rodriguez said repeatedly injected him with steroids obtained in the Dominican Republic.
As it turned out, Sucart was in the area. The New York Post reported that Sucart picked up Rodriguez after the game in a burgundy sport utility vehicle outside the visitors' clubhouse.
Some other fans referred to the clubhouse nickname that former Yankees manager Joe Torre revealed Rodriguez had been tagged with: "A-Fraud." Still another asked if Madonna was coming to the game -- for the record, there were no "Material Girl" sightings on an otherwise perfect Florida afternoon.
But there were numerous supportive customers at the stadium, which sits a 40-minute drive from the Yankees' Spring Training complex in Tampa, Fla. Rodriguez said he had expected the worst coming in and called the reaction "very mild."
"I thought the fans were OK, actually," Rodriguez said. "I'd like to invite a bunch of them out to Fenway [Park] this summer. That'd be pretty nice."
With applause raining from the seating area above the Yankees' third-base dugout, Rodriguez mostly ignored the comments during batting practice, but he flipped two baseballs to young fans.
"I didn't hear any nasty comments, which is important," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "This era that we went through, none of us are proud of [it]. There's kids in the stands. To me, you can show your displeasure with what has happened in the game in a respectful way."
Before the game's first pitch, Girardi said that he pulled Rodriguez aside for a brief chat about the situation.
"I told him, 'We're with you the whole way,'" Girardi said. "'We're going to be here no matter what happens. We're behind you.'"
Rodriguez heard more boos during his first plate appearance, a first-inning walk against Toronto left-hander Brett Cecil, and significantly more cheers when he came up for the home run at-bat against Romero in the fourth inning.
By the fifth inning, when Rodriguez drew a four-pitch walk while facing right-hander Rick Bauer, much of the sun-drenched crowd had grown silent. Individual voices could be heard during Rodriguez's entire third plate appearance.
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said that compared to what Rodriguez has been hearing in New York and around the American League, getting through a sleepy Grapefruit League game should have been a breeze.
"He's going to hit anyway," Gaston said. "When you're up there hitting, you don't hear that noise. You shouldn't hear it. If you're hearing it, then you're not concentrating."
Consider this a test passed, but those exams are just beginning for Rodriguez. Girardi plans to play Rodriguez in four of the Yankees' first five games to help him prepare for the World Baseball Classic, during which he will suit up for the Dominican Republic.
Rodriguez is slated to play on Thursday in the Yankees' home Grapefruit League opener against the Rays before skipping the two-plus-hour bus ride to Fort Myers, Fla., on Friday, where a skeleton squad of Yankees will play the Twins.
Rodriguez will be on the field on Saturday at home against the Twins and is expected to travel to Sarasota, Fla., on Sunday for a game against the Reds before reporting to Classic camp.
Perhaps the fan reaction will be more vocal there, but Spring Training is unlikely to produce anything comparable to what Rodriguez will hear -- or has heard already -- during the regular season.
"Because of who he is, you don't know what it's going to be every place we go," Girardi said. "I'm sure some places will be easier than others and some places will probably be harsher than others. When there's 40,000 or 50,000 fans, the volume is probably going to be louder."
Rodriguez said that he did not have many thoughts while coming over to Dunedin Stadium from the Yankees' facility, and he planned to enjoy the evening by getting a lot of rest.
"It's just a Spring Training game," Rodriguez said. "For me, I was just excited to be able to go out and do what I do best -- just play baseball. I hope today is the start of a special year for all the guys and the fans."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.