By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Alex Rodriguez, one of Major League Baseball's greatest sluggers, said on Friday before his last game in pinstripes that he was "at peace" despite the abrupt nature of his exit from the New York Yankees.

"When you start playing as a little boy, you don't think about the end," said 41-year-old Rodriguez, who learned from Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner last week that he was going to be released after Friday's home game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The stunning announcement was made at a news conference last Sunday following a dismal campaign in which Rodriguez has struggled to a .199 batting average with just nine home runs.

"Baseball has a funny way to tap you on the shoulder when you least expect it and tells you it's the end.

"I'm at peace," the 22-year MLB veteran said. "This is a happy day for me and my family."

Rodriguez has had an extraordinary career, with towering highs and humiliating lows on his way to becoming fourth on MLB's all-time home run list with 696 blasts, trailing only Babe Ruth (714), Henry Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (762).

After winning the American League most valuable player (MVP) award with the Yankees in 2007, Rodriguez exercised his right to opt out of a 10-year, $252 million deal he signed with the Texas Rangers in 2000, a record at the time.

In order to keep him in the Bronx, the Yankees rewrote the record books by giving him a 10-year deal worth $275 million.

Before the start of the 2009 season, Rodriguez admitted to taking steroids during his seasons with Texas after results of a confidential doping test taken in 2003 were revealed.

The man popularly known as A-Rod began being hearing taunts of "A-Roid" and "A-Fraud", but won local fans over by helping the Yankees win the World Series crown in 2009.

Injuries began to take a toll on Rodriguez and he hit rock bottom late in 2013 when he was implicated in a steroids scandal that led to him being banned for the entire 2014 season.

Yet Rodriguez, a three-time American League MVP and 14-time All Star, stormed back by hammering 33 home runs as a 39-year-old to lift the Yanks into the 2015 playoffs.

The Yankees owe Rodriguez for the rest of 2016 and another $20 million for next season. He will pocket the money regardless, but with his release as a player he is free to join another MLB club.

Just four home runs shy of the magical 700-mark going into Friday's game, Rodriguez said he was not thinking about a return to the diamond.

"I said on Sunday that my horizon is Friday," he said.

"After all of this, I'm going to need a long nap and recover and see where life takes me.

"It's been a great run, an incredible journey."

Asked about being tantalisingly close to the 700-home run mark, Rodriguez said the fact that the Yankees had asked him to serve as an adviser and tutor for younger players next season meant even more to him.

"Hal has given me an opportunity to stay involved with the organization (despite) all my screw-ups and how badly I acted," Rodriguez told the pre-game news conference.

"The fact that I'm walking out the door and Hal wants me as part of the family, that's (like) hitting 800 home runs for me."

(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Andrew Both)