BALTIMORE (AP) – Alex Rodriguez walked to the plate, and a dozen fans behind the screen swung into action. Holding up giant, foam syringes, they started with the taunts.

Rodriguez answered them, all right. Back in the big leagues, the Yankees star launched the first pitch he saw deep into the left-field seats for a three-run homer Friday night.

“One swing, and the rest was easy,” Rodriguez said.

That might have hushed his tormentors – for a moment. But baseball figures to face a much tougher time silencing the boos, jeers and doubts stirred up by Manny Ramirez and sport’s latest scandal from the Steroids Era.

A day after the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger was suspended 50 games for using a banned drug, A-Rod returned to the scene.

Off the disabled list from hip surgery, he played in the majors for the first time since admitting in February that he used steroids when he was a member of the Texas Rangers from 2001-03.

As he walked on the grass before the game, a fitting song played over the sound system at Camden Yards: “Circus,” by Britney Spears.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. They’ve been well-documented. I’ve paid the price,” Rodriguez said before New York’s 4-0 win over Baltimore.

“I have nine years to make a difference, to become a better baseball player and a better person,” he said. “I think I have time to have a happy ending.”

But what about the game itself?

The rocky relay from Ramirez to Rodriguez made for yet another stain on the sport and left the pair, sharing huge salaries and megatalent, chasing the same impossible dream: To just play ball.

Yet like their many home runs, their errors off the field will stay on the board. And no doubt, as Rodriguez circled the bases to a mix of cheers and boos with his 554th home run, many fans wondered how many of them should really count because of performance enhancers.

“It’s heat on baseball. It’s horrible for baseball,” Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said. “Now you look at all the superstars who got busted – or allegedly. This era is definitely tarnished.”

Ramirez, meanwhile, remained in seclusion, a day after the Dodgers played for the first time without their dreadlocked star and saw their record home winning streak come to an end.

Although fans and players had plenty to say, Ramirez offered little explanation, simply apologizing for “the whole situation” and leaving Dodgers manager Joe Torre to plead his star’s case, saying Ramirez felt he was a disappointment.

Rodriguez never said the word “steroids” during a pregame news conference. He also said he would not answer any questions related to the newly released book about him by Selena Roberts.

Pressed as to whether he used performance-enhancing drugs in high school, as the book suggests, he said, “The answer is no.”

Rodriguez was the last player to join the team for stretching. The All-Star third baseman drew mostly cheers from the 100 or so Yankees fans lining the dugout and did not acknowledge the crowd. There was a mix of boos and applause when he was announced in the starting lineup.

“It seems like I’m always in this situation,” he said. “I know I have an opportunity to make things right, to make my daughter proud.”

Among those watching him was Brad Reese, who brought his 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter from central Pennsylvania. Dressed in Yankees garb, they sat five rows off the field, even with third base.

“I don’t think anybody really cares whether he used steroids or not,” Reese said. “That’s a player’s choice, and he’ll have to deal with the consequences later. I think he kind of got a bad deal.”

Rodriguez rejoined a wobbly team and helped the Yankees end a five-game losing streak. He had a sudden impact, showing no ill effects from his repaired right hip when he homered in the first inning off Jeremy Guthrie – New York had not gotten a single home run from its third basemen in its first 28 games this season.

Several fans chanted, “Let’s go, steroids!” later in the inning. One man wore a jersey with A-Rod’s No. 13 and an asterisk, and a fan in the upper deck held a sign that simply said, “Cheater.”

Rodriguez struck out swinging in his next two at-bats and grounded out, and was flawless in the field. Wherever he went, the fans marked him.

The first time he walked onto the field for warmups, a man with a big neck and even bigger mouth began razzing from behind the dugout.

Yankees teammate Nick Swisher heard it, turned around and put his index finger to his lips.


AP-ES-05-08-09 2224EDT

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