TAMPA, Fla.(Reuters) - New York Yankees fans waited for six hours on Wednesday with baseballs, bats, cards and even a Wheaties box for slugger Alex Rodriguez to autograph in his first week back from a yearlong suspension in one of sport’s biggest doping scandals.
Media outlets from New York to Japan lugged cameras between the team’s training facilities in Tampa, Florida, hoping for a sighting of the 14-time All-Star with 654 career home runs.
“Love him, hate him, everyone has got an opinion,” said Tom Ferguson, 50, of Tampa, waiting in line for an autograph. “He’s the hottest thing in baseball right now.”
Each move by A-Rod, as he is popularly known, has become a daily guessing game since he arrived early for spring training. He was forced to sit out the 2014 season when Major League Baseball found he had used multiple performance-enhancing drugs.
Rodriguez’s handwritten apology to fans last week did little to put the scandal behind him.
Questions surround the 39-year-old player with a history of injuries, who is owed $61 million for the remaining three years of his Yankees contract despite having not played in a game since September 2013.
He has admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03 while playing for Texas. The confession in 2009 came after he had signed a new contract with the Yankees that was worth $275 million.
“He’s a liar and a cheat,” said 59-year-old Laurie McGill of Long Island, who peered through the fence where Rodriguez practiced Wednesday afternoon, across the street from the team’s main complex.
“But here I am,” she said, prodded by a friend to add that she would “give him a chance.”
Counting each swing of Rodriguez’s bat, reporters crowded on top of a picnic table to see into the ball field from a parking lot.
Fans waiting nearby discussed rumors that he had been giving out his good autograph recently - signing his full name and not just scribbling initials.
“This is his goodwill tour. He’s kissing babies,” said Frank Longo, 44, a Yankees fan now living in Tampa, who left with two autographs for his 3-year-old son.
After keeping reporters waiting most of the day, Rodriguez held an impromptu news conference in the parking lot, brushing off concerns about his health, past drug use and what position he may play.
“I’m all in, whatever it takes,” he said.
Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg; diting by Peter Cooney