VIERA, Fla. — Alex Rodriguez stands inside the batter’s box, taking one swing after another. Every flick of the wrist at batting practice is a small step toward gaining more comfort and confidence.
Gates have not opened to fans yet at Space Coast Stadium.
The few who are in attendance — teammates, field workers and a lone photographer — stop what they are doing to intently watch Rodriguez , who is rehabilitating his surgically repaired left hip. Luis Sojo, the manager of the Class A Advanced Tampa Yankees, sees a vast difference in Rodriguez’s demeanor from his minor league rehab stint last year.
“He’s not that far away, to be honest with you,” Sojo said. “He played for me last year and his body was breaking down. He looks great now. He looks happy.”
Rodriguez went 0-for-3 on Sunday afternoon as a designated hitter in a 2-1 win against the Brevard County Manatees. It was his fourth minor league rehab game, his second with Tampa after playing for Class A Charleston on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“It’s going to be slower. There’s no frustration here,” Rodriguez said. “We want to get back to New York as soon as possible, but there is a process. You have to be realistic.”
He played at third base on Saturday, going 1-for-2 with a run scored while also getting hit by a pitch near his left hip, leaving a bruise the size of a grapefruit on his iliotibial band located on the upper thigh.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Rodriguez said while showing off the bruise to reporters. “I told you, the IT band is no joke.”
Sunday’s game was not as productive.
Rodriguez, 37, had to duck and jump backward to avoid being plunked in the head by a breaking pitch during at his first at-bat, before lining out.
“My reactions aren’t very quick, it has been nine months,” Rodriguez said.
He went down 0-2 in his second at bat and hit a pop fly into foul territory by first base.
Dozens of fans crowded around the on-deck circle prior to Rodriguez’s final at bat in the sixth inning, pointing their cameras and smart phones at the 14-time All-Star.
Rodriguez, who was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos, left the game after his three trips to the plate, as planned, and signed autographs for fans for the second day in a row. Announced attendance was 1,500, a day after attendance was 3,148.
Spectators are not the only ones who have soaked in the A-Rod experience.
Tampa third baseman Peter O’Brien, who grew up idolizing Rodriguez, was somewhat flabbergasted when the 18-year veteran joined the team.
“He goes about his business and is such a pro,” O’Brien said. “When he’s out there taking BP, and throwing, taking ground balls, everything is just so easy and smooth. He makes it look so natural.”
So far, Rodriguez has embraced the younger Tampa players. He bought food from Carrabba’s for them after Saturday’s game and Sojo said that Rodriguez will eventually hold a formal session answering questions from the players, sharing his experience in Major League Baseball.
Rodriguez will be off on Monday and will return to Tampa’s lineup on Tuesday against the visiting Dunedin Blue Jays. He will likely play third base, but he is constantly reevaluating where he is in his rehab.
Sojo said Rodriguez’s return should eventually be a boost for the New York Yankees.
“You could see last year while he was taking ground balls, he was just shaking his head,” Sojo said. “He wasn’t there. But he said he’s feeling strong, there’s no issues. That’s good to hear, because down the road they’re going to need that guy. I don’t care what people say.”