TAMPA, Florida — A sixth-grader making his first visit to spring training stood along a fence outside George M. Steinbrenner Field waiting to get a glimpse of his favorite player.
Shane Negast, an 11-year-old from West Nyack, New York, traveled to Florida with his father, John, who is using Alex Rodriguez's season-long suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs as a teachable moment.
The son wore a No. 13 A-Rod jersey, partially obscured by a red and white backpack adorned by a pair of buttons recognizing a pair of Yankees World Series titles from the 1990s.
He's also a big Derek Jeter fan, and the Yankees are his team. The mere mention of A-Rod's name brought a big smile to the youngster's face.
"We've talked about all that's happened," the father said Thursday. "People make mistakes, and I know Alex brought it all on himself. But he served his suspension. He apologized. He wants to move on. People should cut him some slack."
During their discussions back home, John also told his son, an aspiring second baseman and outfielder, that he also once used PEDs as a high school football player.
"I think it's a valuable lesson," he said. "I don't have a problem with him wearing No. 13."
The Negasts were among about 500 fans who showed up for the Yankees' first full-squad workout of the year, welcoming Rodriguez with cheers and words of encouragement.
The slugger walked into the clubhouse at the club's spring training complex shortly after 9 a.m., slipped on his uniform for the first time in more than a year and exchanged handshakes and pleasantries with some of his teammates before quietly launching what he acknowledges will be a difficult comeback.
Rodriguez, who hasn't played since September 2013, took ground balls at third base and hit three home runs in 32 swings during batting practice.
"This is a hard thing I'm trying to do," Rodriguez said, proclaiming he feels like a rookie getting a fresh start.
And while general manager Brian Cashman said the 39-year-old is "on the team," Rodriguez insisted he's approaching spring training as if he has to prove he belongs.
"It was fun. I'm just happy to be back. ... It's been a while since I've been in uniform," Rodriguez said, adding that it'll take much of spring training to determine where he stands and what he might be capable of contributing to the Yankees
"I wish it was as easy as hitting a 55 mph fastball (in batting practice). We can all look like an All-Star at that point," he said. "We'll see what happens when you have a guy throwing 95 mph."
Manager Joe Girardi also preached patience.
"I've said all along, I don't think it's fair to judge him early. When you've played as few a games as he has in the last two years, the speed of the game is what you have to get used to," the manager said, adding the workout went pretty much as he expected and decisions regarding the player's role probably won't be made until the latter part of camp.
Girardi also said he wasn't surprised by the way crowd greeted Rodriguez. In addition to cheering, many called out his name as he moved from drill to drill and in and out of the batting cage.
"Obviously, we've seen in this game where guys have been suspended or they've done things that weren't on the up and up and weren't right, and you come back and people cheer them. That's just part of being a fan," Girardi said.
"I've said to him that he needs to worry about pleasing himself in a sense, and pleasing his teammates and taking care of his job, and not worrying about the reaction he's going to get," the manager added. "I'm sure there will be boos. But it won't be the first time. He's had to deal with it, and he's been able to shut it out. The important thing is his focus is on the field and in the clubhouse."
Teammates were supportive, too.
First baseman Mark Teixeira, whose spring training locker in the same corner of the clubhouse as A-Rod's, said he is excited about his friend's return and that Rodriguez is "going to do everything possible to get himself back to being a productive player."
"I spoke to Alex, when I saw him a couple of weeks ago, it was kind of like nothing ever happened. Alex, he loves the game, he wants to play and be a great teammate," Teixeira said. "I told him, as long as you're a great teammate, we're going to love you. If he can go out there and produce for us, the fans are going to love him. That's the most important thing. He's out there playing well."
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