Alex Rodriguez Returns in Fighting Form

A-Rod rejoined the Yankees the same day baseball sought to keep him off the field

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Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees reacts after flying out in the fourth inning against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago on Aug. 5, 2013

Alex Rodriguez’s name was written in thick black letters above a locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field on Monday, and his navy batting-practice top hung alongside his gray Yankees jersey. On New York’s lineup card, one of the most lauded and vilified players of his generation was penciled into the cleanup spot, returning to a major-league field for the first time this season. And what a day to do it.

After a months-long investigation into Biogenesis, a Miami antiaging clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), Major League Baseball on Monday suspended 13 players for violating the league’s drug policy. Rodriguez, once considered among the best players in the game, was the only one to contest his punishment. His alleged crimes: using PEDs, lying to the league and then interfering with its investigation. Rodriguez was allowed to play after he pledged to appeal his 211-game suspension, the longest drug penalty in baseball history, which runs through the 2014 season.

First, though, he had to face the pregame media crush. In 13 minutes, Rodriguez answered 13 questions in English and two more in Spanish. He paused often, held his chin in alternating palms and did his best to look thoughtful. He refused to talk about PEDs, the appeals process or his future with the Yankees.

(MORE: Alex Rodriguez Suspended Through End of 2014 Season)

“I’m fighting for my life,” Rodriguez said of his challenge to the league’s suspension. “If I don’t defend myself, no one else will.”

Twice he was asked directly whether he used PEDs. He dodged the questions. “There’s a time and a place for that,” Rodriguez said, adding, “at some point we’ll sit in front of an arbiter and give our case. That’s as much as I feel comfortable telling you right now.”

The appropriate time or place, apparently, was not a press conference held the day his suspension was announced. Rodriguez instead wished that that his inquisitors focus more on baseball’s other narratives, whatever those may be.

“I hope that for one moment with this appeal process we have an opportunity to talk about the greatest game in the world,” he said. “To take a little bit of a time-out from this and give the fans of baseball an opportunity to focus on all the great stories that are happening right now.”

For nearly 30 minutes before the game, Rodriguez signed autographs for a throng of fans near the Yankees’ dugout. The crowd was mostly, if not completely, warm. “I almost brought a syringe for him to sign,” one fan said.

Rodriguez was roundly booed when he came to bat in the second inning. The expected “cheater” signs waved in the outfield, while one section near home plate declared its support with an “A-Rod Army” poster. Rodriguez finished the game 1 for 4, with a bloop single to left in the second inning. He struck out in his final at bat as the White Sox defeated the Yankees, 8-1.

For much of the past decade, Rodriguez was baseball’s best player. Over 19 seasons with Seattle, Texas and the Yankees he amassed 647 home runs and three Most Valuable Player awards. But his image soured before the 2009 season when he admitted to using PEDs. At the time, an apologetic Rodriguez asked fans to judge his career on his numbers moving forward.

(MORE: Hey, New York Yankees: You Signed A-Rod. Deal With It.)

Rodriguez is owed about $34 million for the rest of this season and next year. Last week, he intimated that there were some who would benefit from his suspension — baseball would be rid of a poster boy for the steroid era and the Yankees off the hook for millions in salary. Rodriguez’s best days are behind him. He has had two hip surgeries and two knee surgeries.

His legacy is not the only one at stake. MLB commissioner Bud Selig presided over baseball’s steroid boom in the late ’90s and early 2000s, turning a blind eye while Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds rewrote the sport’s record books. He was reported to have considered a lifetime ban for Rodriguez despite a collective-bargaining agreement that calls for a 50-game suspension for a first-time offender (Rodriguez has not failed a drug test since MLB and the union instituted the current program).

A final ruling may not come until after the season, the president of the Players Association said on Monday, and Rodriguez will play during his appeal. His fight against the league’s punishment has turned him into something of a crusader for due process.

After the game, Rodriguez was back in front of his locker, wearing a blue blazer and jeans, again surrounded by a horde of reporters.

“I just hope there’s a happy ending somewhere,” he said. “No matter how much you like or dislike I don’t think anybody wants to see anybody suffer.”