By Bruce Levine–

(CBS) — This won’t be a popular read, but I hope it may be of interest on some levels.

Alex Rodriguez and I have been friendly for 21 years. When Rodriguez first visited Chicago, we spent hours talking about the Michael Jordan and how he handled his superstar status and fame. Rodriguez wanted to market and emulate most of what Jordan did on — and in some ways — off the playing surface.

Rodriguez went as far as to get Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover, to work with him, after I contacted the iconic workout guru for him. Two years ago this summer was the last time I saw Rodriguez until Saturday. Rodriguez was suspended one year for violating the PED program in Major League Baseball.

I will tell you as a fan of the best sport ever invented that I have the same angry feelings about the steroid era and the way the numbers of the record book have forever been impacted. Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa will always be linked with the way records have been altered.

The reason this group stands out is that it featured the best players of the last 40 years before any alleged use of PEDs was detected.

Rodriguez has had a sensational return this season, serving as the Yankees’ designated hitter. At age 40, he’s on pace for 35 home runs and 100 RBIs. Rodriguez has seemed to regain his skills, while surpassing the 3,000-hit mark, 2,000-RBI level and 675-home run level this season. Few will ever have these numbers, without being able to define their real meaning.

Levine: Where has the time gone since we met?

Rodriguez: I don’t know, Bruce! I do know that we sat on the same bench of this dugout, 20 years ago during the first interview. We have had some really good conversations. Every time we sat down, I learned something new from you. The subjects were always about Jerry Reinsdorf or Mike Jordan .They were some great stories.

BL: It appears to me after all that you have been through, you are back to enjoying baseball and engaging people again. That was the Alex Rodriguez I knew back in the day.

AR:  I think so, Bruce. It has been great to come back. I am grateful to so many people that allowed me to come back. I do feel like I am a teenager again. I am really enjoying what baseball and life have to offer.

BL: Do you go out there every day with a free mind to play baseball? It appears it must be that way in order to succeed.

AR: Yeah, this is the first time in a long time that I have had no expectations from the fans, management or myself. I remember in spring training, I made contact — a groundball to shortstop. I got a standing ovation. (I said) ‘Boy, is this fun! I can do this. After all I am a pro hitting ground balls to short.’

BL: How do you reflect on people trying to make you feel bad about yourself? The world loves to hit people when they are down. How have you reflected that?

AR: Look, the last two years were certainly a nightmare for me. It was very challenging. People have been incredible about me coming back. I have been so surprised with the reception, not only from the fans, but my teams, players from other teams as well. I am having the time of my life. I am both happy and grateful.

BL: When you look at the perspective of this year, do you see retirement?

AR: I am having a great time. I am enjoying the game. I will play as long as this old body holds up.

BL: Legacy — what do you believe yours is? How to you define the numbers and put all of it in perspective?

AR: I have played a long time. It is not for me to decide. I know I am grateful to a lot of people, including the commissioner, for allowing me to come back and write the last few chapters of my career.

BL: In closing this chat, tell me who are the players you like to watch in the game now?

AR: There are so many. The game is in such a good place. We  have great leadership in the commissioner’s office and players union. The state of the game is incredible. The young players like Mike Trout, Carlos Correa in Houston, (Giancarlo) Stanton, (Joc) Pederson with the Dodgers. There are so many talented players right now. The other thing, Bruce — I have never seen the wave of talent in young pitchers. They all throw in the mid-90s to high-90s. I feel every team has guys coming out of the bullpen throwing bullets.

BL: Good thing you can still turn around a 98-mph fastball.

AR: I am glad you think so. Great catching up with you.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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