TAMPA — It's a brutally hot and humid Tuesday afternoon and the most loathed, controversial and, at times, best baseball player of this generation is playing a game before fewer than 200 people.
"Now batting," the public address announcer at Tampa's Steinbrenner Field says, "the third baseman, No. 13, Alex Rodriguez."
A-Rod, playing for the Class A Tampa Yankees as part of his rehabilitation from offseason hip surgery, steps up to the plate to light applause and, surprisingly, no boos or catcalls. For the first time, in this his fifth rehab game, A-Rod is totally surrounded by friends.
Most are wearing Yankees garb. Many sport shirts with A-Rod's name and number on the back. They cheer. They take his picture with their smart phones.
Even when he makes an out, as he did in all three of his at-bats Tuesday, they clap as he makes the slow walk back to the dugout.
And this is what it has come to — a couple of hundred mildly interested, polite fans at a ball field just off Dale Mabry Highway, which is now the setting for the latest and possibly last chapter in one of the most bizarre careers we have ever seen in sports.
Once on pace to be the greatest player the game has ever seen, Rodriguez's career has swirled down into a sewer of shame, embarrassment and injury.
He's here in the final stages of repairing his badly damaged hip, but the beginning stages of repairing his reputation, if that's even possible at this point.
That reputation took another hit Tuesday with reports that Rodriguez, along with others, would be suspended by Major League Baseball after the All-Star break because of his connection to the Biogenesis clinic in Miami where he allegedly received human-growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs.
It also was reported that Rodriguez would meet with Major League Baseball officials on Friday, likely in Tampa, to go over the Biogenesis business. However, A-Rod acted surprised when asked if he was meeting with MLB officials.
"Not that I know of," Rodriguez said. "And if I knew, I couldn't share it with you. We've been fully instructed not to comment on that."
Whether Rodriguez is suspended could be a moot point. About to turn 38, Rodriguez no longer even resembles the three-time American League MVP who used to regularly belt 40 or 50 homers and drive in well over 100 runs a season.
In fact, over the past 21/2 years, he has hit only 34 homers with 119 RBIs even though the Yankees still owe him $114 million over the next five years.
Yet the Yankees, believe it or not, have had such crummy production out of the third-base position (and lately overall, on Tuesday scoring one run for a third straight game, all losses) that they might be rooting for A-Rod to make his way back to the majors.
He still has a long way to go. On Tuesday, he grounded out weakly to third and struck out twice, overmatched by fastballs that topped out at a mere 86 mph. At third base, he made one solid play, but still looks like a guy coming off hip surgery who has barely played in nine months.
"I felt okay," Rodriguez said. "I just got to continue to be patient."
He's excited to be on a baseball field again, but he doesn't have those butterflies that come with playing. That's because he isn't really playing right now. He's working.
"I wish I was a little more nervous," Rodriguez said.
He said he talks to many of his Yankee teammates and manager Joe Girardi pretty much every day and watches Yankees games when he can.
He admits he is not close to 100 percent, yet he sounded confident when he said he will return to the majors this month.
As Rodriguez talks, you don't know whether to believe him, and that's Rodriguez in a nutshell.
He can be charming and believable. Sometimes you think about all that talent and you want him to succeed. You think about all those homers — 647 in all — and you wish for a happy ending to this tragic drama.
Other times, although not Tuesday, he can be sarcastic and narcissistic. You think about the drug allegations, the immaturity and you can't help but want to see him go away for good.
And that's what makes him so fascinating.
Even when he's playing before 200 people.
. Fast facts
The injury: Alex Rodriguez has missed the season after having surgery in January for a torn labrum, a bone impingement and a cyst in his left hip.
The games: Rodriguez went 0-for-4 in two games for Class A Charleston to begin his rehab and is 1-for-8 in three games at High A Tampa.
What's next: Rodriguez has said that he has had no issues with his hip during his rehab. Barring setbacks, Rodriguez will move up to Double-A Trenton then Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre within the next three weeks and return to the Yankees on July 22 against the Rangers.