Perhaps the only major noticeable physical difference was a deep tan, honed by spending the better part of a month in the Florida sun. But Rodriguez claims that he is a new person as he returns to the Yankees, saying he is again focused and motivated only by baseball.
The three-time American League Most Valuable Player missed 28 games after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip. Batting fourth and playing third base, Rodriguez joins a scuffling club that has lost five successive games and will look to him to help turn things around.
"It was hard to watch because I love to play so much," Rodriguez said. "It's really weird sitting on the sidelines and just watching my teammates play, and thinking that I could be helping. But I took that time off and it was nice. I was able to rethink a lot of things, refocus on baseball and I think I'm very excited about the potential of the team this year."
Rodriguez returns amid a firestorm of controversy, most recently fueled by the release of an unauthorized biography -- "A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez." Among other things, author Selena Roberts speculates that Rodriguez have dabbled with steroids both in high school and with the Yankees.
While Rodriguez said that he would not comment on anything in "that book," he did state that he did not use steroids in high school. Rodriguez has admitted to using performance-enhancing substances from 2001-03 with the Texas Rangers, and said that he does not know how his legacy will be affected.
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my career," Rodriguez said. "They've been well-documented. I think I've paid my price, and I'm really excited about the present and the future. Those are the only things I can control from here on out."
The Yankees appeared ready to forgive and forget any of Rodriguez's past transgressions. Melky Cabrera offered A-Rod an enthusiastic high-five as they passed each other in the tunnel leading to the batting cages, and Derek Jeter looked up from a swig of Red Bull with a warm handshake and grin for Rodriguez.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi smiled when asked about the feeling of seeing Rodriguez's name in the lineup, and Nick Swisher hugged Rodriguez twice, summing up the clubhouse atmosphere by asking loudly, "What took you so long?"
"It's awesome," Rodriguez said. "The one thing is, I've stayed in touch with the whole roster pretty much either by phone or by text [message], and I've been on the phone pretty much daily or every other day with Joe, so I feel connected. I'm ready to go."
Said Johnny Damon: "We just want him to produce and help us win ballgames. We've been losing a lot of close games lately, and getting him back will probably help us score a couple of more runs and actually win those close ones."
While rehabbing in Vail, Colo., Rodriguez said that he made the decision to try and return his mental state to 2007, when he blocked out distractions and locked up his second MVP since joining the Yankees.
Rodriguez's past 18 months have been especially tumultuous. He admitted steroid use after a Sports Illustrated article outed him in February, saw cousin Yuri Sucart banned by the team, was called "A-Fraud" in former manager Joe Torre's book, appeared in gossip pages linked to Madonna and agreed to an awkward Details magazine photo spread.
"You look in the mirror and realize that it's time to grow up," Rodriguez said. "It's time to play baseball. I love the way I did things in '07, and things in '08 kind of went away from my '07 plan. I have no one to blame but myself. Now, in '09, I have an opportunity to make things right."
Rodriguez said that he has paid close attention to the performances of the Phillies' Chase Utley and Boston's Mike Lowell. He said that he would have a better idea after this weekend if he is limited, but also said that it might take six to nine games to find out.
"I talked to both of those guys prior to making the decision of doing this intermediate surgery," Rodriguez said. "I've been following them closely and it seems like both of those guys are doing well. I'm encouraged. It was a little different and they've had a little more time, so I'm interested to see how I react."
In 44 overall rehab plate appearances, Rodriguez was 7-for-36 (.194) with three home runs, eight walks and eight strikeouts. He also rarely slid during the games, many of which were played at the Yankees' Minor League complex in Tampa, Fla.
"Usually you get 70 to 80 at-bats in Spring Training," Rodriguez said. "It's going to take a while. You go out, see the ball and try to put a good swing on it and take your chances."
Rodriguez said that he is "praying" he can avoid a second surgical procedure after the season. Dr. Marc Philippon, who performed the initial March 9 procedure, visited Rodriguez in Tampa and told him that he is "optimistic" Rodriguez can avoid undergoing the knife again, characterizing those odds at 50 percent.
"It feels like the beginning," Rodriguez said. "It feels like an opportunity to go out and help the team win. I'm really excited. It's been a long time coming and I've worked really hard."
Girardi cautioned against viewing Rodriguez as some sort of savior for the season, noting that he can't make all the difference.
"Everyone still has to do their job," Girardi said. "We can't expect Alex to come in here and do everything for us. No one knows how he's going to start, but I think it is great that he rushed back, in a sense. It tells you what he thinks about this club."
Rodriguez said that he would do everything he could to help the Yankees, who have been decimated by injuries and enter Friday's action two games under .500 at 13-15.
"I feel very focused and motivated," Rodriguez said. "I'm very hungry to play baseball. I've never been hungrier. I'm very inspired and I feel that I have an opportunity. I think the best chapters are ahead of us this year -- a lot of good things to come."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.