TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Yankees fan Matt Kowalski made the short trip to Arm & Hammer Park, hoping to catch one more look at Alex Rodriguez.
Kowalski got to see what he wanted — Rodriguez homered Friday night for the Trenton Thunder, and many in the sellout crowd cheered as the embattled New York star rounded the bases.
“I live 20 minutes away, and it could be the last chance to see him play,” said Kowalski, of Mount Laurel. “It’s kind of hard to not come out. I’m afraid something’s pending. That’s the rumor, at least.”
Major League Baseball is set to suspend 14 players on Monday in the Biogenesis drug case, with Rodriguez likely to get the stiffest penalty. The 38-year-old third baseman hasn’t played in the majors this season while recovering from hip surgery and a strained quadriceps.
Rodriguez left Friday night after five innings. He later said the Yankees told him the tentative plan is for him to rejoin the big league team in Chicago for Monday night’s game against the White Sox.
Rodriguez said he’s confident that will happen “unless I get hit by lightning, and these days you never know.”
“I am mentally prepared to play for five more years,” he said. “It’s not time for me to hang it up. I have a lot more left in me. I will keep fighting.”
The Yankees have said Rodriguez will play for Trenton on Saturday. The Yankees are in San Diego this weekend.
“I wish they would come in a plane tonight. I wish I was in San Diego,” he said. “I can’t wait to see my teammates. I think I can help them. I think I can help them be a better team.”
Rodriguez rejoined the Yankees’ Double-A farm team earlier in the day, his second minor league rehabilitation assignment during this comeback. After drawing a walk in the first inning, he hit a long two-run homer in the third inning against Reading lefty Jesse Biddle, a No. 1 draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010.
Rodriguez leisurely circled the bases to the cheers of the 8,080 fans, many who applauded in admiration of the shot. The three-time American League MVP pointed to someone behind home plate after touching it and headed to the dugout for congratulations by his temporary teammates.
There were some boos during the night.
“I think there were a lot of Phillies fans out there,” he said. “A lot of people cheered when I hit the home run.”
In the fifth inning, Rodriguez was called out on strikes. He talked to a couple of fans in the stands, signed a few autographs and gave away his bat, and exited the game.
Cheryl Dacey of Princeton Junction sat behind a couple of Philles fans who booed every time Rodriguez came to the plate. She totally enjoyed seeing him quiet them up with his home run.
“In my opinion, I’m 52, I think A-Rod is one of the best players I will see in my lifetime for baseball,” said the longtime Yankees fan. “I think there is a witch hunt on for him.”
She got a chance to tell Rodriguez that, too. She left the stadium after he was taken out with her No. 13 Yankees uniform autographed.
Earlier in the game, Rodriguez knocked down a hard grounder and threw the batter out at first by a half step.
Prior to the game, Rodriguez smiled a lot, met his teammates and shook hands with coaches after stepping on the field at 4:13 p.m. He did not field questions from a massive media contingent before taking batting practice, throwing and fielding grounder in a 30-minute preparation for the game against the Fightin Phils.
This was Rodriguez’s second appearance with the Thunder this season, but the first one in New Jersey.
While there were a couple of A-Rod jerseys in the stands, there also were Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira tops sprinkled in along with some from Philadelphia players.
The 30-year-old Kowalski wore a Rodriguez uniform, and was somewhat forgiving when asked about A-Rod’s problems.
“It’s hard not to appreciate what A-Rod did for the Yankees,” he said. “Anyone who turns a blind eye to 2009 is kidding themselves. They don’t win a ring in 2009 without him, so it’s hard to forget that.”
Thunder Manager Tony Franklin did not think Rodriguez’s presence would be a distraction.
“Our guys understand the circumstances around this,” he said. “It’s all about baseball for our guys. One thing about baseball players is when the game they have a unique ability to separate what’s on the field from what’s off the field.”
It was hard not to notice Rodriguez’s every step. Cameramen and reporters stared at him, and they looked over his shoulder as he signed autographs 20 minutes before the first pitch.
“I expect him to be productive in this lineup,” Franklin said of a player with 647 career home runs in the bigs. “We’re in a pennant race, and I say it jokingly, but I look for the same effort he always gives. He’s the consummate professional when it comes to playing the game. The game means everything to him.”
Franklin kidded Rodriguez could keep up the tradition of stars buying food spreads for the minor leaguers after the game.
On a more serious note, he said Rodriguez is “a regular guy” who can impart a lot to his players. He also wanted to see him in action.
“I love watching him play,” Franklin said. “I am still a fan of baseball and watching him play on the baseball field is what I enjoy.”