CHICAGO -- Alex Rodriguez so desperately wanted to talk about playing baseball. Upon the concurrent culminations of two separate seven-month ordeals on the very same day -- arduous rehab from hip surgery and a looming suspension from a drug scandal -- prior temerity turned into newfound timidity for the Yankees third baseman.
There was no admission or contrition from Rodriguez, just a repeated intention to make an appeal of his suspension through the 2014 season. There was no reiteration of the denial he made back in January, when this whole saga began publicly through an article in the Miami New Times that detailed several ballplayers' alleged links to performance-enhancing drugs. Even his initial statement from Monday afternoon began, "I am disappointed with the penalty," but did not deny the league's allegations of PED use and investigation obstruction.
"When the time is right," Rodriguez said, "we'll all speak more freely."
That didn't sound much like the player who came out swinging after a Friday night rehab game, seemingly hinting at a conspiracy to keep him out of the sport. Instead, he suddenly gained a deep appreciation for "due process," a phrase he kept repeating through his press conference on Monday. (When reminded of those conspiratorial comments, Rodriguez replied, "I said what I said.")
When he could, Rodriguez spun questions at his packed press conference back to actually playing the game he's now clinging to -- potentially through the rest of the season, depending on the timing and verdict of his appeal.
He likened his return on Monday to his major league debut as an 18-year-old two decades ago. He spoke about the Yankees' "mission to enter the postseason." He said the Yankees would want him back "if I'm productive." He went on a startling soliloquy about how he's "a huge baseball fan" who wants positive attention paid to the game, almost as if he did so in purposeful contradiction to the commissioner's reported entertainment of the idea that he'd ban Rodriguez under the "best interests of the game" clause.
"I hope that for one moment during this appeal process that we have the opportunity to talk about the greatest game in the world," Rodriguez said, "to take a little bit of a timeout from this and give the fans of baseball an opportunity to focus on all the great stories that are happening in baseball right now."
The unspoken reason -- or "pink elephant in the room," as Rodriguez confusingly said Friday night -- was that such great, feel-good stories were being buried because of Rodriguez and all the other players implicated in the Biogenesis drug scandal.
For now, Rodriguez can again view himself a ballplayer, with a compromise suspension of 211 games, instead of a lifetime ban via the collective bargaining agreement, that will allow him to play while appealing.
"I just want to express to you guys and the fans of baseball that the last seven months has been a nightmare," Rodriguez said. "It's been probably the worst time of my life, for sure ... I am thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to put on this uniform again and to play major league baseball again."
That 12 players accepted 50-game bans on Monday without appealing -- and a 13th, the Brewers' Ryan Braun, agreed to a 65-game suspension two weeks ago despite a previously combative defense that he was clean -- gave plenty of credibility to the records and claims of its chief, Anthony Bosch.
"I'm fighting for my life," Rodriguez said Monday. "I have to defend myself. If I don't defend myself, no one else will."
The potential for one of the most surreal scenes in baseball history -- the possibility that Rodriguez might bat with the game on the line on the very day he was given the sport's longest non-lifetime ban -- fizzled because the dilapidated Yankees fell behind the White Sox 7-0 after three innings and showed little ability to muster a comeback. Such is the sad state of affairs to which Rodriguez is returning.
In his first big league action since last year's postseason, when he went 3-for-25 and was removed for a pinch hitter on multiple occasions, Rodriguez went 1-for-4 in Monday night's 8-1 loss. He blooped a single to left in his first plate appearance, flew out deeply his next two times up and struck out looking on a full-count curveball.
Anything is better than what the power-starved Yankees have been getting at his position. They have received an AL-low four home runs from their third basemen in Rodriguez's absence.
New York manager Joe Girardi was impressively matter-of-fact in his press conference in discussing his willingness to accept Rodriguez's on-field contributions but not directly address his alleged off-field transgressions.
"If he's healthy and he feels good, we expect him to be productive, and I'm going to play him," Girardi said.
And, later, Girardi said, "I'm not here to judge people. It's not my job."
The recurring boos throughout the night indicated a clear judgment from the fans in Chicago, a scene likely to be repeated from every other crowd in the majors up to, and possibly even including, the one at Yankee Stadium.
"Look, I don't think anybody -- no matter how much you like or dislike -- wants to see anybody suffer," Rodriguez said. "I think the fans want to see what's best for the game, but hopefully, we can take a pause for some of this and start focusing on baseball.
"At least for a little while."