NEW YORK (AP) Alex Rodriguez returned to the infield, hugged a reception line of teammates and was handed the final ball from his final game with the New York Yankees. He walked to the area behind third base, leaned down and grabbed a handful of dirt.
Baseball's most notorious star of the last two decades then headed back to the dugout after a Yankee Stadium finale Friday night that included a pregame ceremony punctuated by thunderclaps and cut short by a downpour, a first-inning RBI double and a surprising ninth-inning return to third base.
A sellout crowd of 46,459 gave him standing ovations and chanted his name, admiration and perhaps even affection coming out after more than a decade of trouble and tension.
''I've given these fans a lot of headaches over the years and I've disappointed a lot of people,'' he said after the 6-3 victory over Tampa Bay, his voice sounding hoarse over the public-address system in one of baseball's most unusual farewells. ''But like I've always said, you don't have to be defined by your mistakes. How you come back matters, too, and that's what New York's all about.''
He will be cut Saturday by a Yankees team pivoting to youth. The 41-year-old designated hitter isn't sure whether he will play again.
A-Rod drove a 96 mph fastball from Chris Archer into the right-center field gap in the first inning, ending an 0-for-11 slide. Rodriguez then grounded out, struck out and bounced out again on the first pitch in his last at-bat. The 1-for-4 night left him with a .200 average, nine homers and 31 RBIs in his 12th and final Yankees season.
With the sellout crowd of 46,459 chanting ''We want A-Rod!'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi sent him to third base for the first time in 15 months at the start of the ninth inning as the organist played ''Thanks for Memory.''
Rodriguez had criticized Girardi for benching him for most of the past month.
''If this is the last time he plays,'' Girardi said softly, pausing for 10 seconds and sniffling as his voice cracked and his eyes teared, ''I wanted it to be something he never forgot.''
Girardi offered to leave him in the field for two outs, but Rodriguez opted to leave after Mikie Mahtook's leadoff strikeout. Fans applauded, many of whom never warmed to a player who in 2009 admitted using performance-enhancing drugs, then served a yearlong drug suspension in 2014.
Rodriguez raised his cap and an arm before walking into the dugout, sitting down and holding a white towel to his face as he tried to hold back tears.
`With all that I've been through, and for them to show up on a night like tonight and show me that type of love is something that I'll never forget. It was overwhelming,'' he said during a news conference, perfectly coifed in a gray suit and silver necktie.
Dark clouds rolled in from the northwest as his ceremony began. Rodriguez's family was on the field and public address announcer Paul Olden said: ''Alex, you spent 12 of your 22 seasons with the Yankees'' when a loud thunderclap shook the ballpark, as if cued by a film director.
Rain started to fall during a video message from Lou Piniella, Rodriguez's first big league manager, and the festivities ended awkwardly after 10 minutes when a downpour began.
Ten minutes later, the clouds started to clear, symbolic of A-Rod's time in New York, and a rainbow came out shortly before the first pitch.
''It was certainly like Biblical. Did you hear the thunder crackle?'' he said. ''You can't make that up. I guess we went out with a bang.''
With the Bleacher Creatures chanting his name during the traditional roll call and the rest of the fans joining in, Rodriguez raised his cap toward them from the dugout.
Fans gave him a 30-second ovation when he walked up to the plate in the bottom half and stood and took photos and videos during his at-bats. Rodriguez clapped as he came out of the batter's box and pumped both arms in triumph as he reached second base without a throw.
''Take it easy on the old man,'' Rodriguez told the 27-year-old Archer before the game.
Starlin Castro had four RBIs for the Yankees, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run homer in the sixth off Archer (6-16) that gave CC Sabathia (7-9) his second win since mid-June.
Rodriguez had slept late, ate his egg whites, stretched and took one final trip to the ballpark as a New York player.
''The last time I drive up Broadway and through Harlem and through the neighborhoods that have brought so much comfort to me,'' he said.
In a 4-for-47 funk, Rodriguez started for just the third time in 19 games, the 2,784th and perhaps final regular-season appearance in a career that started with Seattle in 1994, moved on to Texas in 2001 and then New York three years later. Admitting to plenty of errors in a life that has included the 2009 World Series title, a divorce, celebrity girlfriends, high-stakes poker games and what seemed to be as many photos on tabloid fronts as backs, he leaves without establishing his own era. Rodriguez was a supporting actor in the Derek Jeter-Mariano Rivera epoch, and when the stars left the cast he could not carry the show.
He has 696 home runs, fourth on the career list behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714). But owner Hal Steinbrenner told him on Aug. 3 the end was at hand, and Rodriguez said last Sunday he had accepted an offer to play one final home game and then become a team adviser through 2017, tasked with mentoring young players.
''With all my screw-ups and how badly I acted, the fact that I'm walking out the door, Hal wants me as part of the family, that's hitting 800 home runs for me,'' Rodriguez said.
New York will owe him $7,103,825 for the rest of this year and $20 million for next, the final season of his $275 million, 10-year contract.
Having seen his lights go down on Broadway, is Miami 2017 in his future?
He has not said he is retiring.
''I'm going to need a long nap and recover and I want to see where life takes me,'' he said, ''but right now I think I value wearing this uniform, and for me the Yankees pinstripes is enough.''
A 14-time All-Star and three-time AL MVP, A-Rod has a .295 batting average, 3,115 hits and his 2,086 RBIs, second to Aaron's 2,297 since RBIs became an official statistic. Earlier this week in Boston, as A-Rod watched the offensive exploits of 23-year-old teammate Gary Sanchez, a realization dawned.
''I can't do that anymore,'' Rodriguez remembered telling him. ''And I was happy about it. I'm at peace.''
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (8-4) starts Saturday for the Yankees, who hold a reunion of their 1996 champions, and RHP Matt Andriese (6-3) for the Rays.