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The many reinventions of Alex Rodriguez

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In Rod we trust to always change.

2016 US Open - Day 13 Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images

When the clock struck midnight on October 30th, 2014, the baseball season was over. Just two hours earlier, Pablo Sandoval caught a Salvador Perez popup in foul territory to clinch the San Francisco Giants’ third World Series title in five years, and sent Major League Baseball into the offseason. While reporters converged upon a champagne-soaked Madison Bumgarner, whose postseason dominance would be the story of the day, another narrative loomed. Alex Rodriguez’s suspension had just expired.

In the two years since his suspension was lifted, Rodriguez mastered the art of reinvention. He emerged from exile, hit 33 home runs and led the the Yankees to the postseason, played so poorly a year later that the Yankees released him, and joined Fox Sports as a baseball analyst. He also simultaneously transformed his brand, losing the self-centered reputation in favor of the much more fun inner awkwardness of a dad.

To gain an appreciation for A-Rod’s transformations, it makes sense to examine each step individually. I’ve identified three distinct periods that capture his evolving character. Each lends insight into the man himself, and highlights his remarkable comeback.

Out of exile and into the middle of the lineup

I don’t think that it’s fair to consider A-Rod a villain heading into the 2015 season. That undersells how poorly he was perceived. Rodriguez was essentially baseball’s persona non grata, and for good reason, too. He spent the previous two years self-destructing on live television.

Rodriguez was suspended from Major League Baseball for the entirety of the 2014 season for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, but that doesn’t account for all of the damage he inflicted. In fact, his brand suffered more in the months leading up to the suspension ruling, when he launched a scorched earth campaign the likes of which baseball has never really seen. He filed lawsuits against the Yankees, their doctors, and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

He also made an impromptu appearance on the Mike Francesa Show where he denied using PEDs and repeatedly called former Commissioner Bud Selig “The Man From Milwaukee.” The audio is incredible. Needless to say, Rodriguez had few allies within the game. He also lacked fan sympathy. The spectacle had run wild.

Nobody knew what to expect when A-Rod arrived in spring training before the 2015 season. The number of questions were overwhelming. Would the Yankees be able to handle the media circus? Would Rodriguez address his suspension? Would he even make the team in lieu of the Chase Headley signing? All of those questions were answered in the affirmative and spoke to his reinvention.

Rodriguez did indeed address his suspension. He issued a handwritten open letter apologizing for his actions. The medium was unique, and a little awkward, but it represented a turning point in his character. It read with humility and a level of sincerity that he typically lacked. For arguably the first time in his career, A-Rod was a humbled underdog and that was relatable. He made the first, and probably largest, stride in repairing his relationship with the fanbase.

If there were any fans holding out during spring training, it’s safe to say he won them back during the regular season. In 151 games, he posted a .250/.356/.486 batting line. That’s worth a 129 wRC+. He also launched 33 home runs en route to accumulating 2.7 fWAR as a designated hitter. Without A-Rod, it’s likely that the Yankees don’t make the American League Wild Card game. You couldn’t ask for more from a 40-year-old who had missed the entire previous season.

“I feel like I’m in my 20s,” said Rodriguez last July when asked about hitting a home run on his 40th birthday. “It’s incredible, it’s hard to explain.” He didn’t have to explain, however, as fans were thrilled with the MVP-caliber production. Sure, he received a hearty amount of boos at visiting stadiums, but he was at folk hero status in the Bronx. The prodigal son had come home.

The graceful exit

Following his heroic comeback season, the Yankees expected A-Rod to be a middle-of-the-order slugger again. Sadly, that never materialized. In fact, the writing was on the wall back in 2015 when he posted just a .191/.300/.377 batting line with a 27.7 K% in the final two months of the season.

Rodriguez had a rather poor spring training in 2016. He hit a home run in his first at-bat of Grapefruit League play, but that was the only display of power he showed. That didn’t raise any alarms, however, as veterans get a pass, especially those who hit 33 home runs the previous year. Unfortunately, the spring training showcase was a sign of things to come, and Rodriguez stumbled right out of the gate without ever recovering.

By the end of June, the final month of his regular playing time, Rodriguez was batting just .219/.257/.382 (66 wRC+). He also managed only eight home runs. A-Rod was overpowered at the plate. His reduced bat speed meant he couldn’t catch up to most above-average fastballs. He also was swinging-and-missing at off-speed pitches. The Yankees were bad as a whole and Rodriguez’s sudden inability to hit took the brunt of the blame.

In an attempt to right the ship, manager Joe Girardi effectively benched Rodriguez in July. From July 23rd to August 6th, A-Rod started in just one of the team’s next seventeen games. Fans and pundits alike questioned what would be next for the erstwhile designated hitter. Would the Yankees buy out his contract? Would they attempt to trade him? Or maybe they would wait until rosters expand in September to just bury him among the call-ups.

The answer came on August 7th when the Yankees and Rodriguez held a joint press conference. The Yankees were going to release A-Rod following their game on August 12th, giving him one last hurrah. “No athlete ever ends his career, or her career, the way you want to,” said Rodriguez. “We all want to keep playing forever, but it doesn’t work that way. Accepting the end gracefully is part of being a professional athlete.”

That quote sums up the next reinvention of A-Rod. He stepped aside gracefully. The Yankees asked him to take a bow and depart, and he did. He didn’t rush to sign a free agent contract with another team. He didn’t cling to the past. The end wasn’t pretty but he left with class and style.

In the span of a year he went from leading a playoff-bound team to forced retirement. He went from returning enemy to empathetic departure. Also, in agreeing to become a special minor league instructor, Rodriguez transitioned into elder statesman territory. We saw his love for the sport exemplified in his final games, and that let fans see another side of A-Rod they hadn’t seen before.

Booth-Rod

After his successful 2015 campaign, Rodriguez joined Fox Sports for last year’s playoffs, and made a few appearances throughout. He was so good at it, and so well-received, that they invited him back in 2016. The results have been spectacular, as A-Rod has received nothing but rave reviews as an analyst.

His in-studio experience, and reinvention into Booth-Rod, allowed fans to see his passion for the game up close. “It’s not a parachute in,” said Bardia Shah-Rais, Vice President of Production for Fox Sports. He’s invested. If we have a noon meeting, he’s there at 11:30 a.m. He’s emailing story ideas in the morning. He wants research. He’s almost all-in to the point where it’s annoying.”

Rodriguez has always been praised for having a high baseball-IQ. It’s abundantly clear when he’s at the panel or writing his own blog posts. He embraced his inner baseball nerd and made it part of his identity. His reinvention here highlights his intelligence, but does so in a way that’s fun to watch.

He also brings a level of whimsy to the studio. This is something that we’ve seen beginning with his reemergence in 2015. Just take a look at his Instagram account for some examples. That said, when he’s on-air and rubbing elbows with Pete Rose and Frank Thomas, that’s when he’s at his most playful. In fact, it was just Friday night that brought us this postgame gem.

A-Rod has become the awkward dad that we all wish we had. The kind that would probably embarrass you in public, but deep down you really love it. His reinvention as a TV analyst puts this side of him on full display, and it makes you wonder how you ever lived without it.

Derek Jeter was recently asked questions about the World Series and his family life. “Well I never answered questions about my personal life so it’s really not nagging to me,” he responded. While that approach has merits, it leaves something to be desired. A-Rod let’s us in, through the good and the bad. He’s relatable and that could be responsible for our attachment to him. Each reinvention brings us another step closer to the real Rodriguez, and it’s a treat. If we’re lucky, we’ll have many more years of watching A-Rod on TV as he grows and continues to unfold.