For as long as I’ve been a baseball fan, I’ve been a fan of Alex Rodriguez. For as long as I’ve been a baseball fan, I’ve had to defend the fact that I’m a fan of Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is one of those guys that everyone just loves to hate. Not one of those "if he’s on your team you love him, but if he plays elsewhere you hate him types" because even fans of the team he plays for are torn on whether or not they like A-Rod. I’ve never been able to talk about him without getting into some sort of debate about him. It always led to "he’s the worst thing to happen to baseball" and "what a cheater, haha A-ROID" and other "creative" nicknames. Then the whole Biogensis scandal happened and Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season for his use of performance enhancing drugs, and it was the single longest suspension handed out in baseball history.
When his suspension was first announced, Rodriguez didn’t go down without a fight. He went to war with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association to try and fight the suspension, going as far as to sue the MLBPA. I can only imagine A-Rod fell victim to some terrible advice from lawyers or close friends and family that led him to that point, but eventually he realized that he was fighting a losing battle and burning bridges along the way, so he dropped the suit and accepted his suspension. Something happened to him in that year away. He was humbled and realized he just missed the game so much he wanted to do anything to get back into it, and get back in the good graces of fans.
There were many questions for the Yankees heading into the 2015 season, but the most interesting was "what will Alex Rodriguez be?" Will he continue to just be a distraction? Will he be able to play the field? Will he be ok with losing his job as the Yankees’ third baseman? Can he still turn on a fastball? The questions were endless. There was destined to be a circus surrounding the team and A-Rod and it was doomed to fail. But then a funny thing happened along the way; it wasn’t a distraction at all. The two biggest keys to success were probably that a) A-Rod needed to keep his mouth shut and b) he needed to hit. He did both of those things. He pretty much refused to talk about his suspension except to say he learned a lot about himself while he was away from baseball, how grateful he was to be playing again, and just how much he missed the game. Also, he hit.
The biggest reason A-Rod was able to come back and change his image and was given a second chance by fans was because he performed on the field. The Yankees didn’t know whether or not he could be relied upon to be the everyday third baseman, so they signed Chase Headley to a four-year deal. This effectively made A-Rod the primary designated hitter. While a lot of great hitters don’t take too kindly to becoming the DH (see: Jorge Posada), Rodriguez actually thrived in that role. Factoring in his age, and his two hip surgeries, playing the field every day (or any day, really) just wasn't an option. Being the DH allowed him to do what he does best and just hit. He himself has been very vocal about how being the DH kept him fresh and allowed him to help the team.
"I think (playing) DH makes me feel young sometimes. It was a great call that (Girardi) made, and it’s been good to be out there nightly and help my team win."
He hit to the tune of .250/.356/.486 with 33 home runs and 86 RBI, making him a real force in the middle of the Yankees lineup. And were it not for a miserable August slump where he hit .153/.273/.259, his numbers could have been even better. The point remains though, that A-Rod was able to come back and hit and perform, and not say anything that could be detrimental to the team or its chemistry.
In fact, whenever he did talk, he always seemed to be saying just the right things. It started back in February when Rodriguez penned a letter to fans and formally apologized for doing pretty much everything wrong and took responsibility for his actions. After that, he had only one message "I just want to help the team win" and even though his performance on the field did that, his leadership off the field was just as vital to the Yankees' success this year. Earlier in the season, when Didi Gregorius was struggling both at the plate and in the field, Rodriguez stepped up, took the young shortstop under his wing and worked with him. When Rodriguez played the position, he was one of the game's best shortstops, so who better to try and coach Gregorius out of his troubles? And for what it's worth, Gregorius really grew into his own as a shortstop, and became an absolutely delight to watch in the field. He even earned himself a Gold Glove nomination this year, losing out to Alcides Escobar of the Royals.
Rodriguez also tried pushing the spotlight away from himself as much as possible. Anytime a reporter would ask about his night, it seemed like he’d just bring it back to the team and talk about the team’s success. He was out to prove that he cared about the game more than himself, and that was never more evident than when he reached a settlement with the Yankees regarding his milestone bonus for tying Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Instead of fighting for the $6 million his contract said he was due, he and the team agreed to a $3.5 million donation to various charities. All throughout the season, A-Rod showed great humility, and showed that his suspension was a humbling experience and a learning opportunity for him. With all the positive energy he brought to the team, and baseball, plus his well-known knowledge of the game, A-Rod was invited by Fox to join them for their World Series coverage.
Unfortunately, the Yankees did not play in the World Series this year, but instead the world was exposed to Alex Rodriguez: baseball genius. A-Rod supporters and detractors alike were able to agree on one thing: A-Rod was a fantastic baseball analyst. His knowledge of the game, plus his ability to articulate what he was seeing, proved insightful enough that he was able to effectively share the game from a player's perspective unlike many ex-players. And so many people loved him for it. Even some of his biggest critics couldn't help but take notice of his excellent work on the field. Just seeing how people changed their opinions of him so quickly from February to October was a thing of beauty. Not many people could have pulled it off, especially anyone that had A-Rod's reputation to fight back from.
If one wants to track the progression of A-Rod’s reputation this season, the furthest one needs to look is to the Yankees themselves. It started in spring training when A-Rod hit his first spring training home run and the Yankees Twitter account was unsurprisingly silent:
Things were no different during the season. From the lack of love he received on their social media pages, all the way to the public refusal to pay the home run bonuses, the team, while happy to have him help win games for them, was hiding in the shadows and refusing to acknowledge anything he did. Eventually though, as he continued to hit and kept doing and saying the right things, he slowly started to win them back. They even started acknowledging the milestones they otherwise would have completely ignored (that were not connected to monetary bonuses):
Of course all of that led to the Yankees and Rodriguez making amends with an on-field ceremony to commemorate his 3,000th hit, as well as what is, by far, the single greatest moment in Twitter history (this is a fact, it is not debatable):
There are many who will debate that A-Rod isn't as good as his numbers say, because he took PEDs and we'll honestly never know the truth behind his numbers. I, personally, am in the camp that he's simply a very good baseball player, and steroids or not, his numbers would still be amazing. He's a true student of the game, and none seem to have a greater passion for baseball than he does. Even Major League Baseball seems to be on A-Rod's side as he was named one of the finalists for Comeback Player of the Year.
You can, of course, make the argument that Rodriguez was more deserving of the award than Prince Fielder was, but that seems to be a moot point. Right now, it’s just amazing to see the path A-Rod, "history’s greatest villain," took to fix his damaged reputation. While he may never be able to erase his past, it seems that in the twilight of his career, he’s at least going out and showing the world that he’s more than his PED-riddled past. He's #BAEROD.