By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - For a few moments on Friday, it was just like old times for Alex Rodriguez. He was standing at the plate, with a fastball coming toward him, and he swung his bat with all his might, smashing the ball 350 feet over the wall.
As the crowd rose to their feet, he jogged around the bases for a two-run homer. Reality then set in.
He made an early exit from the game in the fifth inning to face the media and answer more questions about his future, which remains uncertain with Major League Baseball set to announce their decisions in their investigation into alleged doping.
Rodriguez began by talking about his performance in Friday's game. Major League Baseball's highest-paid player had been assigned to participate in two rehabilitation games, the second scheduled for Saturday, with the Trenton Thunder, a New Jersey-based affiliate of the New York Yankees.
He has been sidelined all season because of injury but hopes to be back playing with the Yankees later this week, and did provide some cause for optimism with his homer over left.
"It's probably the best I've felt since we started this process," he told reporters. "I feel like I'm there. I'm ready to go."
"A lot of people cheered when I hit that home run."
Rodriguez, however, knows that his chances of rejoining the Yankees soon are likely to be determined more by what happens off the field rather than on it.
The 38-year-old is among a handful of MLB players being investigated over their links to a Florida clinic accused of supplying performance enhancing drugs.
All face the possibility of suspensions in accordance with the sport's rules on doping.
Speculation about the length of the penalties and when they will be announced has dominated American sports media for the past week, even though the MLB has remained silent while the investigation continues.
So far, only one player, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, has been penalized. The National League's Most Valuable Player just two years ago, Braun accepted a 65-game suspension, ruling him out for the rest of this season.
He also lost his lucrative contract with Nike, with the sportswear company announcing on Friday that they were cutting ties.
U.S. media have speculated the fate of the remaining players under investigation will be announced by Monday because it would allow anyone given a 50-game suspension to serve bans before the playoffs began.
Under an agreement between the MLB and the players union, 50 games is the standard punishment for any first-time doping offender.
The New York Daily News reported that nine MLB players were under investigation and eight of them had been offered the choice of accepting a 50-game suspension or lodging an appeal.
Rodriguez was the exception. Although he has never previously been banned for doping, he has admitted to using banned steroids earlier in his career.
The third baseman has denied any wrongdoing this time and his lawyer has publicly stated that he would appeal any penalty.
"I am mentally prepared to play for five more years," a defiant Rodriguez said.
"It's not time for me to hang it up.
"I have a lot more left in me. I will keep fighting."
Local media have painted a gloomier picture for Rodriguez, suggesting he could face a much stiffer penalty if he was found to have breached any other rules, such as recruiting other players to the Biogenesis clinic or impeding the MLB investigation.
The MLB could invoke a rule allowing commissioner Bud Selig to impose a life ban, which would almost certainly trigger a long legal battle.
ESPN said the MLB and Rodriguez's legal team were negotiating a reduced penalty but were yet to reach an agreement. Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees which runs through 2017 and has more than $100 million left to be paid.
"There are a lot of layers. I will say this," Rodriguez said. "There is more than one party that benefits from me not being on the field. It's not my team mates and not the fans."
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Gene Cherry/Ian Ransom)