Saturday May 9th, 2009

BALTIMORE -- You kept thinking that perhaps tonight wouldn't end up being the night. That it would rain, or that manager Joe Girardi would at any moment announce, in his measured way, that Alex Rodriguez's return to the Yankees was being pushed back a day or two. "He's itchin', just itchin' to get out there," Girardi might say, "but it's a long season, and we're not going to rush it. Believe me, I'm going to have to tie him up to keep him off that field."

But as game time, 7:05 ET, drew near, it became clear that A-Rod would, indeed, make his long-awaited debut, after months of daily updates as to the state of his hip, and nothing was going to stop him. Rodriguez walked back and forth through the visitors' clubhouse at Orioles Park at Camden Yards, snapping his gum and sporting a tan worthy of a South Florida anchorman, busily doing what he normally does to prepare for a game. The only instances in which you could tell that he'd been absent for a while came when he stopped to greet his teammates, whom he hadn't seen since early March. "How you doin'?" Nick Swisher yelled, adding a certain affectionate expletive to the end of that as he and A-Rod hugged and slapped the back of each other's heads. "What took you so long?" Swisher joked.

Rodriguez's first interaction with Derek Jeter, who had just finished discussing this week's American Idol results with a reporter, was notably chillier. (Jeter was disappointed that Allison Iraheta, whom he kept calling "my girl," was voted off. "She's going to be the biggest star of them all," he said.) "How you doing?" A-Rod said. "Good," Jeter said. Two seconds, maybe. A quick handshake, minimal eye contact.

Minutes later, Rodriguez had all the eye contact he could handle when he emerged from the Yankees' clubhouse to address the media in the third-base dugout -- and it was a mob, maybe a hundred people, crushing against each other and poking each other with cameras and pens in an effort to get into position. "We should probably get Z out here, don't you think?" a wide-eyed Rodriguez said as he took in the scene, referring to the Yankees' P.R. chief, Jason Zillo. Kanye West's "Stronger" blared over the ballpark's P.A. system ("N-n-now that that don't kill me/ Can only make me stronger").

While the majority of what A-Rod said in 15 minutes of questions and answers was as it usually is -- polished and bland ("The one thing is, we need to win. That's the only thing, to win. We need to win, no matter what I do. That's what I'm here for.") -- he was, at one point, enticed into addressing the chapter of Selena Roberts' new book A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez in which Roberts reports that Rodriguez took steroids as a high school student. "I'm not answering anything to do with that book," Rodriguez said, before a reporter asked for a third time whether Roberts' reporting was accurate. "No," he said, finally.

Then it was time to move on from what Rodriguez does worst -- speaking in public -- to what he does best -- hitting a baseball. And, from his first batting practice swing, which produced a scorching liner that caromed off the centerfield wall, it was clear that he was back in his comfort zone. At 7:09 PM, A-Rod strode to the plate for his first official at-bat of the season and the cheers from the stands overwhelmed the boos (Yankees fans stood six rows deep behind the dugout as he had taken batting practice -- that's Orioles baseball, I guess). With his first pitch, Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie threw a fastball that tailed over the middle of the plate, and Rodriguez crushed it, sending it deep into the left field stands, 378 feet away.

The first pitch! What happened to the Rodriguez who crumbles under pressure? Perhaps he learned this off-season that there can be pressures in life that far exceed any on the baseball field. Those three first-inning runs would prove to be all that CC Sabathia (who threw a complete game) and the Yanks would need to break their 5-game losing streak, and after Sabathia's final pitch, while the fans cheered and cheered (Orioles baseball!), Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira embraced behind the pitcher's mound.

"That was unbelievable," said Sabathia of Rodriguez's bomb. "It's unbelievable, but it's not surprising." Unbelievable, but not surprising: somehow, when it's Alex Rodriguez we're talking about, that makes sense.

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