Lisa Swan co-writes Subway Squawkers, a Yankees-Mets fan blog.
Alex Rodriguez was the kind of figure who brings Americans together: Just months ago, the superstar Yankees third baseman was, by unanimous consent, a national villain. He had received the longest suspension in MLB history for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, missing the entire 2014 season. He was a known cheater, liar and all-around weirdo. He had paid off his creepy cousin Yuri to keep quiet about what substances he used, sued everybody from Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad to Columbia University Medical Center to the commissioner of Major League Baseball, and eventually made a deal with the feds. He was caught cheating on his wife with a stripper and broke up his marriage for good when he reportedly decided that Madonna was his soulmate. (Madonna doesn’t have a soul, dude!)
When A-Rod’s suspension ended this spring, he could have stayed exactly the same and still earned $64 million over the next three seasons, as his famously inflated contract requires. After all, change is hard, and changing people’s opinion of you is even harder. Instead, Rodriguez has achieved both, returning not only as a fabulous almost-40-year-old baseball player willing to do whatever his manager and coaches say, but also as a player who goes out of his way to make amends, to act like a mensch and to reach out to the fans. It is the most remarkable career transformation since Matthew McConaughey turned himself from a shirtless himbo into an Oscar winner. It is truly an inspirational redemption story — a lesson for any public figure dispatched to the wilderness.
A-Rod’s history of villainy and eccentricity is almost hard to believe. He upstaged the 2007 World Series by opting out of his contract with the Yankees, then managed to get an even bigger one from the team, filled with performance-based milestone bonuses that the Yankees now refuse to pay. He kissed his reflection in a mirror during an interview with Details magazine. He allegedly commissioned paintings of himself as a centaur. He let Cameron Diaz feed him popcorn at the Super Bowl like she was putting food into a baby bird’s mouth.
On the field, A-Rod was a Hall of Fame-quality player, but he did bizarre things during games as well, especially in the playoffs. One play that still defines him occurred during the 2004 American League Championship Series, when he slapped the ball from the glove of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo while running to first base, a bush-league move that exemplified the ineptness of the Yankees against Boston that year. Other than part of that 2004 postseason and his exceptional 2009 postseason, Rodriguez had multiple seasons of playoff futility, capped by his being pinch-hit for in the 2012 playoffs, then flirting with female fans during a game and finally being repeatedly benched that October.
A-Rod suffered by the inherent comparison with Derek Jeter, the beloved team captain. Rodriguez was Nixon to Jeter’s Kennedy, all flop sweat up against Jeter’s cool charisma. Jeter’s unquestioned supremacy at shortstop forced Rodriguez to change positions when he joined the Yankees, and he nursed a grudge, saying that No. 2 “never had to lead.” As payback, Jeter declined to lead Yankees fans by telling them not to boo A-Rod.
Rodriguez’s immense skill and even bigger contract made him a larger-than-life, almost Dickensian character for the press, which chronicled his every flaw. Meanwhile, Jeter got a pass as reporters ignored his deteriorating athleticism, the gift baskets he gave to one-night stands and his self-aggrandizing RE2PECT farewell tour, complete with “King of NY” cleats and the egotistical “My Way” theme song. Through it all, the Yankees captain somehow kept up his classy, team-first image, even as he refused to abdicate his shortstop role or move down in the lineup when he could no longer hit or field well.
While some of the complaints against Rodriguez over the years were silly — did it really matter that he took his shirt off in Central Park or ran across pitcher Dallas Braden’s mound? — the overwhelming sense that came with his unprecedented suspension was that Rodriguez had reaped what he sowed, had hit rock bottom and would live in infamy for the rest of his baseball life.
But a funny thing happened after A-Rod became MLB’s biggest pariah. He began trying something he’d never done before: turning his life around. “No father, no college — these are his two gaping wounds, his two great sorrows,” J.R. Moehringer wrote in a long, road-to-perdition profile for ESPN the Magazine. So Rodriguez spent 2014 going to intensive therapy sessions, attending a college class to see if he had what it takes to be a student and apologizing to everyone he had wronged: He came to the Yankees brass in person with his mea culpa, and he offered a handwritten apology to the fans.
This wasn’t strictly necessary. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong stayed their prickly selves after their own performance-enhancing-drug scandals. Nevertheless, the world began to get a sense for the new Alex Rodriguez in 2015.
Always known as a hard worker, he showed up to spring training early and kept his cool, even when his arrival strangely ticked off the Yankees. His team’s front office made it clear that it wished A-Rod would just stay home and retire, but Rodriguez took the high road and refused to complain, at least not publicly, as he might have once done. When he lost his position at third base to Chase Headley, when he was told he would play only as the designated hitter, when he was put at the bottom of the lineup, when he was ordered to pick up a first baseman’s glove, when the Yankees told him they wouldn’t pay the $6 million in milestone money he earned by tying Willie Mays’s 660-homer record — he absorbed all these humiliations and more. He swallowed his titanic pride. He even showed a humble and self-deprecating side, as well as a sense of humor — new developments for a man once obsessed with success.
Most important, A-Rod showed that he could play again at a high level — a comeback story in the fullest meaning of the phrase. The year off allowed his bad hips to heal, and as he approaches his 40th birthday next month, he is back batting third. As of Friday afternoon, he had a surprising 12 homers, a .278/.384/.505 slash line, and the 10th-best on-base plus slugging percentage in the American League. On Friday night, he hit a home run to reach that magic number: 3,000 career hits.
A-Rod’s post-Jeter-era teammates are impressed by his baseball acumen and willingness to share his knowledge. They occasioned his 660th home run by giving him a beer shower, a celebration that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Now A-Rod is getting what he has always craved — love and affection from Yankees fans. From receiving the loudest ovation of any Yankee on opening day to getting a curtain call when he hit his 661st homer and passed Mays on the all-time home run list, Rodriguez is feeling the love; he is now the team’s most popular player. Yankees T-shirt seller “Bald” Vinny Milano, who once hawked anti-A-Rod apparel, has become a vocal supporter of No. 13, selling #FORG1V3 shirts. Rodriguez even got a standing ovation Monday night from an away team’s fans, as the Yankees played his hometown Miami Marlins.
New York Times columnist Tyler Kepner, a longtime critic of A-Rod who has called him “one of baseball’s greatest con men,” grudgingly acknowledged how much Rodriguez has changed his image, writing that “it is stunning to see Rodriguez’s discipline this season,” and that “for Rodriguez to go this long without causing any controversy, without saying the wrong thing or so much as smirking at the wrong moment, is as remarkable as his hitting revival.” It’s an example that Johnny Manziel, who this past week said he’s done with his wild “Johnny Football” persona, could study.
We want our role models to be perfect, especially for our children’s sake. But what can flawless, contour-free statues — the marble creatures on pedestals — really teach us about overcoming adversity? The reality is that most of us have more A-Rod in us than we do Jeter. No. 2 is cool but boring; No. 13 is the one who, after decades of trying, finally bested his demons — the flawed human who dug his own grave, then climbed out of it.
When I ran my first half-marathon this spring, after a lifetime as a couch potato, A-Rod was a source of inspiration. If Rodriguez, the most hated man in baseball just a few months ago, could come all the way back to cheers from previously disgusted fans, even as his team’s front office opposed him at every turn, 13.1 miles for an overweight back-of-the-packer like me suddenly seemed attainable.