From steroids to celebrations, what a year it's been for Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod: "I did answer the music and I'm glad. I'd hit rock bottom"
In nine months, we saw the end of one Alex Rodriguez and the birth of another
Biggest lesson learned: We should stop being surprised by A-Rod in any way
NEW YORK -- The last image we saw of Alex Rodriguez in the 2009 season was very different from the first one. In the beginning, A-Rod was, as he has so often been throughout a career marked by excesses of tumult and talent, the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. In February, he sat in a tent in Tampa, Fla., at the Yankees spring training complex and tried in vain to fight back tears and explain how and why he had taken steroids when he was with the Texas Rangers.
Now it is early November, and there is no need for tears and no need for explanations, though Rodriguez still offered a little of both on Wednesday night. The look of genuine joy on his face, his arms raised to the heavens in triumph as the Yankees began celebrating their World Series victory, said as much about how he has changed this season as the Commissioner's Trophy he soon held, at long last, in his hands.
Of all the players bouncing around the field at Yankee Stadium in jubilation as Wednesday night turned into Thursday morning, none seemed happier than Rodriguez, which may be because none of them had to endure a season quite like the one he had just completed. On the field, he encountered his first serious health scare, a hip injury that required surgery and kept him out until early May, and his first truly prolonged slump at the plate, which left him with a .254 average in late August. Off the field, there was the photo of him appearing to kiss his own mirrored reflection, and his relationship with actress Kate Hudson that made for decent tabloid fodder. Nothing, however, could compare to the firestorm that erupted when Rodriguez admitted to using steroids from 2001-2003.
At the time, it was something close to a nightmare. The superhuman statistics he had been producing were revealed to be less than completely legitimate, and so was the carefully cultivated public persona he had been trying to present for years. Yet in the destruction of that edifice, a new foundation was laid. "The best thing that happened to me was the embarrassment of all the spring training stuff," he said, victory cigar in hand, after the Yankees finished emptying bottles of Armand de Brignac champagne all over each other in the clubhouse. "I did answer the music and I'm glad. I'd hit rock bottom."
If the legacies of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were crystallized by their fifth world title, then in winning his first, Rodriguez's was transformed. He may still be slightly vain -- a centaur? Really? -- and may still be highly ambitious, but he has undoubtedly acquired a new level of humility that, in fairness, may have been hard to come by as he was performing like the best player in the world (winning three MVP awards in five seasons) and being paid like it (signing not one but two contracts in excess of a quarter-billion dollars just seven years apart).
That transformation began with his much-dissected press conference, but the real impetus for change came a few weeks later when he went to lunch with some friends of his and heard them "tell me a lot of things that I needed to hear," he says. "I listened and I humbled myself. I look in the mirror and I was honest with myself and I didn't like what I saw."
Rodriguez is reflective enough to admit that part of his problem was that "I took myself too seriously," while at the same time being unable to say exactly why that was. Whatever the reason, he determined that he would simply fade into the background, or at least, as much as he could while batting cleanup for the best team in baseball in the biggest city in the country while being paid the highest salary and dating a Hollywood starlet.
"I'm a team guy now," he said. "I don't worry about anything individual. There's nothing you do individually that compares to team accomplishments."
He had paid lip service to that in the past, but he displayed a certain tone-deaf manner when it came to living up to those declarations. Just two years ago, he interrupted a different World Series clincher to announce that he was opting out of his then-record $252 million contract, a particularly selfish act for which he was rightfully ripped. Recalling that episode on Wednesday night, Yankees president Randy Levine said, "That was not a good night. Sometimes you've got to hit a bump in the road to get back to the top. It all worked out great. Tonight's a great night."
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