If you want to get a New York sports fan fired up, ask about Alex Rodriguez. He’s been many things in New York: the hero, the villain, the tabloid headline and the butt of more jokes than “your mother.” Barely a day has gone by since he was traded to the Yankees following the 2003 season without someone, somewhere, talking about A-Rod. He is so ubiquitous in the minds and nightmares of Yankees fans everywhere, and now he is back, a specter of his former glory returned to haunt Yankee Stadium once again.

Rodriguez returned to the Majors on Monday afternoon for the first time since being suspended for the entire 2014 season after violating the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and Basic Agreement. That’s just a fancy way of saying that A-Rod was caught using steroids again, then became the poster child for the MLB’s “After More Than Two Decades, We’ve Decided to Get Serious About Steroids” campaign.

Possibly the best natural talent of his generation, the 14-time All-Star sits fifth on the all-time home runs list with 654 dingers in his career. Rodriguez also happens, however, to be the best scandal-producer of his generation. He’s been photographed out on the town with women while he was married, blasphemed Derek Jeter, gotten divorced, dated Madonna and twice been caught using steroids after he had denied doing so. It finally caught up to him with the 2014 suspension, and that may be the best thing that’s ever happened to A-Rod.

Before, A-Rod had always been forgiven — posting 13-straight seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 R.B.I. helps — but in 2014 he finally had to face the consequences of his actions. As writer J.R. Moehringer
documented in a story for a February issue of ESPN The Magazine, Rodriguez spent the last year looking back not just on how he acted in his first 20 MLB seasons, but on everything that he had done to get to where he was in 2014.

Maybe this introspection will change A-Rod for the better. Maybe it will feed his megalomania. Only time will tell. But one thing that his gap year did was shield A-Rod from the spotlight. A-Rod still made the tabloids, but he downgraded from the main attraction to a sideshow.

Nothing showed just how well time heals all wounds than the fans’ reactions to Rodriguez on Monday. A-Rod stepped up to the batter’s box to cheers from the home crowd — something that would have been unimaginable given Rodriguez’s reputation just a year ago.

The time off could have also given A-Rod’s surgically repaired hip the rest it needed to recapture the explosive yet graceful swing that Rodriguez unleashed on thousands of unsuspecting baseballs during his career. Rodriguez’s days of producing All-Star caliber numbers are long gone, but he showed flickers of the star he once was in spring training.

Having gotten separation from the life that was spinning out of his control a year ago, A-Rod has the chance to make things right this summer with his family, the fans and the New York Yankees.

Teddy Roosevelt advised people to “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Hopefully his year away from the game will have taught A-Rod a similar lesson.