TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez sat in the first-base dugout at Legends Field, surrounded by the usual circle of cameras, microphones and reporters. He knows the scrutiny will only increase as he approaches Barry Bonds' career home-run record, especially in an era when all top athletes must prove they haven't juiced up on performance-enhancing drugs.
In his first session with reporters during spring training, Rodriguez talked about baseball's drug-testing program and made a curious statement.
"Last year, I got tested 9-to-10 times," Rodriguez said. "We have a very, very strict policy, and I think the game is making tremendous strides."
If Rodriguez had been tested that many times, either he was selected for an unusually high number of random checks or he might have been subjected to additional tests -- which would happen, for instance, if a player tests positive for a banned stimulant for the first time.
Later in the day, A-Rod said it was just hyperbole.
"My quote from earlier today was taken literally. I was not tested nine or 10 times last year. I was just using exaggeration to make a point," Rodriguez said in a statement through Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo.
"My intent was simply to shed light on the fact that the current program being implemented is working, and a reason for that is through frequent testing. I apologize for any confusion I may have caused."
Rodriguez stated categorically that he had never taken steroids or human growth hormone. He said he isn't worried about Jose Canseco, who has hinted without going into detail that he will make allegations of some sort against Rodriguez in an upcoming book.
"Right now, the game is in a very not-trusting situation with our public, with our fans," A-Rod said. "Some of the things that I've accomplished and potentially some of the things that people think I can accomplish, my name has come up and will probably come up again in the future."
Rodriguez also denied a claim last week by former Texas teammate John Rocker that doctors from management and the players' association told A-Rod, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Rocker following a spring training meeting how to effectively use steroids. Rodriguez and Rocker were with the Rangers in 2002.
"That did not happen," A-Rod said.
Rodriguez signed a record $275 million, 10-year contract to remain with the New York Yankees. Just 32, he is an 11-time All-Star who led the with 54 home runs and 156 RBIs last season and won his third AL MVP award. Heading into this year, he's 17th on the career list with 518 home runs, 244 behind the record Bonds established last year.
He wouldn't talk about why he opted out of his record $252 million, 10-year contract last October only to return a few weeks later.
"It was just a big misunderstanding," Yankees senior vice president Hank Steinbrenner said. "We really didn't know that he wanted to come back and he was very concerned, very alarmed when he found out we didn't know he wanted to come back and he made it clear he did, and everything was great from there."
Wherever A-Rod goes, there are questions. He is 8-for-59 (.136) in the postseason dating to 2004 and hitless in 18 consecutive playoff at-bats with runners in scoring position.
No matter how many home runs he hits, without a World Series ring he can't take a place alongside Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, can't be mentioned with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson.
"I think there's a sense of urgency," new manager Joe Girardi said. "There's no better year than the present, right?"
Playing for the Yankees has largely robbed A-Rod of his privacy. Whether he's sunbathing in Central Park or walking through a Toronto hotel lobby with a blond stripper, paparazzi are usually hiding nearby.
"When you're as good as Alex, you're going to be scrutinized more, and people are always watching," Girardi said. "When you're a great player, people never take their eyes off of you, so everything that you do is under a microscope, and he's doing it at the highest level in New York."
Across town, the Mets have their own icon to show off this year. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana is the Queens ace to play opposite A-Rod's Bronx bravura.
"I'm glad for a guy like Santana, gets to play in a city like New York," Rodriguez said. "He's the best pitcher. He deserves to be in the city, and in a forum. I thought it was a fantastic move by the New York Mets."
Rodriguez also praised teammate Andy Pettitte, who was forced to give a deposition and affidavit to Congress in which he admitted using HGH in 2002 and 2004. Pettitte also said Roger Clemens discussed HGH use nearly a decade ago -- Clemens said Pettitte "misremembers."
"Andy is one of the greatest human beings I've ever met," Rodriguez said. "I have two daughters -- well, I have one and one on the way. If I had a daughter, I would want 'em to marry Andy Pettitte. The age difference might be a little awkward, but in today's day and age anything is possible."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press