The countdown begins on ARod’s chase of Babe Ruth

In the late afternoon shadows, the ballplayer jogging running laps in the outfield of Jackie Robinson Stadium at UCLA this winter had a familiar gait…

Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees connects on his seventh inning grand slam against the San Francisco Giants at Yankee Stadium on September 20, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Giants 5-1. The home run was the 24th career grand slam for Rodriguez moving him past Lou Gehrig into first place on the all time list. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

In the late afternoon shadows, the ballplayer jogging running laps in the outfield of Jackie Robinson Stadium at UCLA this winter had a familiar gait and and an even more familiar face once he comes into closer view.

It was Alex Rodriguez, ARod as he is known to his fans who remain legion, trying to improve his conditioning as he used the off-seaon to return to the New York Yankees after sitting out all of 2014 on a performance enchancing drug suspension.

He has a goal, after all.

“Seven fourteen,” he was heard to mumble by some of the college-age ballplayers who have worked out alongside. “Seven fourteen.”

It is a magic number to baseball fans, especially the Yankee faithful. It is the number of the legendary Babe Ruth’s career home runs, which stood as a record for decades after the Yankee known as The Bambino retired in 1935.

And it stands as ARod’s target as he prepares for a comeback that likely will be surrounded by as controversy as fanfare. He is baseball’s prodigal son. Gifted with enormous talent, he went from being the poster boy for the national pastime to perhaps the most recognized face of the game’s steroid era.

This week he begins that comeback with two years left on a guaranteed contract that will pay him $61 million through the 2017 season – a contract so big the Yankees can’t really trade him, given that he will be 40 next season and remains a physical uncertainty after undergoing surgery on both hips.

SEE ALSO: Alex Rodriguez admits to steroid use

Commentators have already written him off as being virtually over the hill, unlikely to play a majority of the 162-game season and lucky if he can hit 15 to 20 home runs in 2015.

The guys almost half his age who have been around him when he’s worked out don’t buy any of that.

“He looks like he’s 10 years younger than he is,” said one ballplayer who has worked out around him at UCLA. “He’ strong and all muscle. There’s not an ounce of fat on him.

“I wouldn’t bet against him catching Babe Ruth.”

ARod’s 654 home runs, after all, are only 46 shy of 700, and 50 behind Ruth. So the question becomes can he play out all three seasons and average 17 home runs each of those years?

Rodriguez also has tremendous incentives written into his contract. He is guaranteed an additional $6 million each for tying the Ruth at 714 home runs, Hank Aaron at 755 and Barry Bonds at 762 as well as breaking Bonds’ major league record.

The Yankees certainly could use that kind of offensive production, after one of the team’s most unproductive offensive showings in 2014.

And after what become a heroic return from steroid suspension of slugger Nelson Cruz, who led the Baltimore Orioles to the American League’s East Division title, it’s a safe bet that fans either have a short memory or don’t care about PED use as much as some crusading baseball purists.

Alex Rodriguez wants to catch and pass Babe Ruth's home run totals. The Babe hit 714 dingers.

Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees is congratulated by teammate Alfonso Soriano #12 after Rodriguez his a grand slam in the seventh inning against the San Francisco Giants during interleague play on September 20, 2013 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

“There is going to be attention, some of it negative, some of it positive,” says Yankees manager Joe Girardi about Rordiguez’s return. “We’ll deal with it.”

Officially, the ballclub is trying to minimize the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the team in spring training – and to lessen the pressure on ARod.

“You have the whole spectrum from minimal contributions to significant contributions,” Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters at baseball meetings in Phoenix last weekend. “I think as you enter the process from the general manager’s standpoint, you enter the process with expectations low and hoping for the best.

“But I don’t think I can bank, for our fan base, on significant contributions and count on it and be surprised if it’s not there.

“You can’t quantify the unknown right now and get him out there on a consistent basis to see if he can actually remain healthy, stay on the field and be productive.”

Although he has been the Yankees mainstay at third base in his prime, Rodriguez isn’t expected to play more than a few dozen games, if that in the hot corner, as the team looks around for a full-time third baseman.

“Alex is going to come in and compete, compete for at-bats, compete for a position,” says Cashman. “Simple as that.”

SEE ALSO: The silver linings playbook Alex Rodriguez needs to follow

Rodriguez, though, likely to return to the spot he left in 2013 – the designated hitter role, especially if a healthy Carlos Delgado is able to be the full-time rightfielder.

It is also no secret that the Yankees are hoping Rodriguez can adapt to playing first base on the other side of the infield to spell Mark Teixeira at first base on days when he needs the rest.

In his winter workouts in Los Angeles, ARod was often seen taking ground balls at both third and first and already working on footwork around first base.

To that end, he has already gotten a vote of confidence from Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner.

“I think Alex is going to come to play,” Steinbrenner told the Yankee-owned YES network, “and Alex is going to come to contribute. “It’s going to be different. It’s going to be a very different situation, without a doubt.

“But I think the players, once they see that he shows up in shape (and) is trying as hard as he can to contribute, which I trust he will, I think sooner or later that’s going to die down a bit and everybody is going to start to focus on their job.”