A-Rod, we hardly knew ye

A-Rod's earning big cred as a baseball analyst for Fox Sports after changing himself as a person.

A-Rod, earning big cred as a baseball analyst for Fox Sports, after changing himself as a person.

The Hollywood Reporter, of all things, has Alex Rodriguez having “the secret to a successful second act,” which they quote him as giving: “You have to own your shit.” Which he’s done, little by little, from the moment he returned from his Biogenesis-related suspension from baseball.

Publishing a remarkable story about his transformation into a very respected baseball analyst on television and a mentor to fellow former athletes off, The Reporter seems dazed enough in tone to suggest what an objective reader might take away from reading it: A-Rod, we hardly knew ye.

The old saw (formulated by Frank Graham), “He learned to say hello when it was time to say goodbye,” applies to few baseball men as tautly as it did to Rodriguez, who spend his final two seasons as a baseball player learning to say hello—to teammates, staffers, anyone around the game—before he said goodbye with a flourish of grace once thought unthinkable of him.

With a multi-year deal from Fox Sports, A-Rod now impresses just as much as he did as a player before his baseball life began to sink in one after another suspicion or scandal, with the same qualities that made him a baseball star in the first place, his unstoppable work ethic atop his real talent.

He also has a genuine need to make things simple for people now. Including and especially himself.

No player in the game was more in need of reinforcement. No player was less secure in his own skin, for all his image as a kind of narcissist; no player was more full of punishing self-doubt. It didn’t matter what he could and did to on the field or at the plate, when he was the game’s best all-around shortstop.

Rodriguez could go five-for-five and hit for the cycle and make plays over which Ozzie Smith himself would have shouted, Shazam! It wasn’t even close to enough for him to believe he really was as good as his performances.

Ask him now about his two best baseball seasons, as the Reporter did, and Rodriguez doesn’t flinch. “My best two years happened at 19 and as a broken-down 40-year-old,” he said. At 19 he split time between the Mariners and the Tacoma Rainiers. At 40, he tried to hang in for one more season but hit 30 points below his playing weight. In one, he learned to play major league baseball. In the other, he continued re-learning to be a man.

“I hadn’t played in basically two years, two hip surgeries, two knee surgeries, scandal,” he tells the Reporter‘s Marissa Guthrie, referring to his return from suspension in 2015. “And if you think about that arc, that tells you a hell of a story, right? The mistakes I’ve made are loud and clear. But one thing I am proud of is, I did not let those mistakes define who I am. I kept getting up.”

He didn’t make it easy for himself.

This is the fellow who played his way into baseball’s fattest payday at the time and lost a shot at becoming what he once wanted most, a Met, when agent Scott Boras handed then-general manager Steve Phillips a list of perks outrageous by anyone’s standard. And we’ll never know for certain whether A-Rod wanted any or all of them or whether they were Boras’s bright idea.

This is the guy who misspoke concurrent to those negotiations when trying to say his then-BFF Derek Jeter, who was haggling over his own new Yankee contract, didn’t have to pressure himself to be the Yankees’ leader. That misspeak cost him Jeter’s friendship and, perhaps, Jeter’s steady hand of moral support and steerage. Not to mention making things considerably less than comfortable in the clubhouse when A-Rod eventually became a Yankee himself.

This is the guy who signed an even bigger deal with a team (the Rangers) who thought, insanely, that it could solve its chronic and notorious at the time pitching problems by paying the equivalent of a solid pitching staff to one shortstop. One who was so insecure, and desperate not to let anyone see it, that he dipped into the waters of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, scared shitless that he couldn’t live up to that fortune of a deal.

This is also the genuine lover of baseball’s history who went scorched-earth, threatening practically everyone in baseball higher than ballpark groundskeepers to keep himself from being suspended over his presence in the Biogenesis scandal of a few years ago. 

When the inevitable happened, he also turned out the guy who took a good, long, honest look at himself at last. And no longer liked what he saw. Self-doubt was one thing; smug self-preservation was something else entirely. Even if he and anyone else with two brain cells to keep nourished knew in their hearts of hearts that there’s no pill, needle, or cream able to make greatness of any kind, never mind to hit 696 home runs 3,115 major league baseball base hits.

A-Rod, embracing the mentor's role and people, not necessarily in that order.

A-Rod, embracing the mentor’s role and people, not necessarily in that order.

“It’s probably too soon for me to say this,” he told Guthrie, “but maybe in ten years I’ll be able to say that the ‘ ’14 sabbatical’ was one of the best things that happened in my life. I’ll say this: That year off I just had to fucking change and stop being a jerk.”

Guthrie says Rodriguez saw a psychoanalyst and made a point of spending even more time with his two daughters. (When Dad’s home with as many baseball games on the flatscreen as he can handle, because he loves the game and does his analytical homework to a fare-thee-well, they invariably quake, “Dad, this is too much, where’s the Disney Channel?”) He also took classes in value investing at Columbia University and marketing at the University of Miami.

That must have been a sober one for him. UofM romanced him to come there to play college baseball. He turned them down to dance with the Mariners’ $1 million signing bonus and a $1.3 million, three-year contract, because he’d had enough of his mother working two jobs as she’d done since his father left when he was ten.

One of the first things the teenaged Rodriguez did with all that cash was buy his mother a home and a new car. That’s part of the A-Rod we hardly knew, or at least found difficult to remember. Then at long last the Biogenesis suspension trainwrecked him straight.

“When the thing that you love more than anything in the world is taken away from you,” longtime Yankee announcer Suzyn Waldman told Guthrie, “even if you did it to yourself, you really have to take a look at who you are and what you’re doing. When they took baseball away from him, something changed.”

Waldman should know. In 2015, she told New York Daily News media columnist Bob Raissman she liked Rodriguez without shaking away his flaws. “I find him impossible to dislike,” she said then. “I’m not defending him. I think what he did was stupid more than anything else. I know he’s lied. He’s made every wrong decision. He says things and does things and you just want to say ‘Why?’ I also know you can’t go wrong for dumping on Alex. This is what it’s become. What’s he supposed to do?”

Waldman answered her own question when talking to Guthrie. A-Rod answered it himself beginning two years ago. With no guaranteed job going in, he made himself into practically the Yankees’ most valuable player for a good stretch of 2015. He spent the season enjoying one more round of something close to his vintage playing form while doing whatever he could to repair bridges the world thought he hadn’t just burned but nuked.

A-Rod and J-Lo, comfortable in their own skins together.

A-Rod and J-Lo, comfortable in their own skins together.

Then Rodriguez accepted Hal Steinbrenner’s private edict and retired in August 2016, after playing one final game at Yankee Stadium. He went one-for-four with a double, then walked away with little more than an agreement to be a Yankee instructor and mentor in spring trainings to come.

He enjoys his work with Fox Sports and a couple of other networks, and in turn he’s admired, respected, and even liked for his work diligence and his often on-the-money analysis. He’s maintained a friendly relationship with his former wife, the mother of his two children, a relationship that could have stayed in the tank after his dalliance with Madonna in the bad old days broke up the marriage.

He has a loving relationship with Jennifer Lopez, the actress/dancer/singer who’s at least his equal for notoriety and also has two children of her own (with former husband Marc Anthony, the singer). They seem to dote on each other and each other’s children. He’s so comfortable in this relationship that, when Lopez gave him a FaceTime call during one of his interviews with Guthrie, he handed Guthrie the phone, urging, “Say hi!”

And he also mentors young colleagues and fellow former athletes whose second acts may yet prove more difficult than his own. Joe Smith, Jr., a longtime NBA journeyman, is one. Smith hopes to open a youth basketball academy. A-Rod brought in Under Armour chieftain Kevin Plank to help.

He has some pretty sage advice for athletes whose careers are just beginning, too. “You’re going to make probably 90-to-95 percent of your lifetime income from age 20 to 30,” he tells CNBC Make It, “and you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s going to happen from age 30 to 80?’”

Rodriguez’s work with Smith will showcase on CNBC’s Back in the Game. If it’s anything close to the analytical showcase he delivers for Fox Sports regularly, it should be a gem. If it has even one-tenth the new, surprising comfort in his own skin and with other people that seems to be the mandate of his life after baseball, it’ll be a masterpiece.

It’s too late for this talented, intelligent, and genuinely sensitive man to save his credibility as a baseball player in the public estimation, but Rodriguez learned the hard way it was more important to restore his credibility as a man. That means more—to A-Rod and those with whom he works, plays, and lives—than any home run, any gazelle-like play in the infield, or the one World Series ring he got to win, in a 2009 set in which he contributed with a home run, three other extra base hits, and five runs scored.

He’s too smart to rationalise his past. The man he seems to be now wouldn’t let him, anyway.

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