IN THE LATE AFTERNOON OF AUG. 21, IN A BATTING tunnel beneath the stands of Boston's Fenway Park, Alex Rodriguez toiled away with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Rodriguez, in his 14th full season in the major leagues, was batting just .254, and never before had he hit so poorly that deep into a season. He'd never even been within 28 points of that mark. It wasn't so much the batting average, though, that bothered Long. "You've had a lot of trouble getting runners in from third base," Long told Rodriguez. "You're something like 20 percent getting guys in from third with less than two outs. You're too good of a hitter for that. You've got to be a lot better than that. Let's try something."
Getting runners in from third base with fewer than two outs is the one situation in baseball in which a hitter is expected to produce, because virtually any kind of contact other than a pop fly will get the job done. But coming through when needed, given his lackluster postseason history as a Yankee, was the one prominent hole in Rodriguez's otherwise voluminous baseball résumé.
Long had an idea. He told Rodriguez to set his feet farther apart in his batting stance, positioning them wider than his shoulders. This would give him a more stable base, like opening the legs of a tripod. But its greater utility would be to simplify Rodriguez's movements to the ball. With a wider stance, Long reasoned, Rodriguez would have to reduce the height that he raised his left foot, the leg kick that served as the trigger mechanism for his swing. It would also reduce any movement of his head. The goal was to keep things simple.
That night Rodriguez went 4 for 4, the Yankees demolished the Red Sox 20-11, and the last tweak in the six-month remaking of Alex Rodriguez—surgical, contritional, aspirational, mechanical—was complete. In 50 games after that, Rodriguez batted .350 with 15 home runs, 53 RBIs and a .441 on-base percentage. Those totals include 15 high-stakes postseason games in which he exceeded expectations, hitting .365 with six home runs in 52 at bats. And thanks largely to A-Rod, the Yankees dispatched the Phillies in six games for the franchise's 27th World Series title and, at last, at age 34, his first.
How Rodriguez finally became a world champion is a baseball story. That makes it a changed story about Rodriguez, who entered 2009 as a human silo of tabloid fodder. In July '08, midway through the only season among the past 15 in which the Yankees did not make the playoffs, Rodriguez split with his wife, Cynthia, and just 15 days later announced a different kind of partnership, with a Hollywood talent agency. Already a car dealer, real estate mogul, Warren Buffett chum and Madonna BFF, Rodriguez said in a statement, "Partnering with William Morris will enable me to broaden the scope of my career in creative and innovative ways. I'm excited to see what we will be able to accomplish together, both domestically and abroad."
Fifteen months later, however, Rodriguez found something even the most talented agent could not invent: happiness. It was right there all along for him in the game of baseball. All he had to do, just as Long told him in the batting tunnel, was to simplify his approach.
"Alex Rodriguez is now a ballplayer," says his longtime agent, Scott Boras. "There was a time when he was lost in other things and listening to other people. Alex figured out it's an honor to be a great ballplayer. It's enough to be a great ballplayer."
HOW DIFFERENT THINGS looked in March 2009. He came to spring training an admitted steroid user (flushed to admission only because of an SI.com report in February). His marriage was ending, and on March 9 he had to have hip surgery, which put his career on hiatus for two months. Having baseball and his credibility taken away from him, with time to reflect on those losses during his rehabilitation in Colorado, changed Rodriguez, according to Long. "Everybody who cheated [with steroids] carries that around with him," Long says. "They know inside they cheated. Deep down you can't feel good about it. So to have it come out, yes, I think as hard as it was, there was some freedom. Plus, if you're going through a divorce, I don't care what line of work you're in, that makes doing your job even more difficult."
Rodriguez admitted at a press conference on Feb. 17 that he had used steroids for three years while playing for the Texas Rangers. Six months later, at Yankee Stadium, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz held his own news conference after The New York Times reported that he was on a 2003 list of players who allegedly flunked a drug test. With players' association general counsel Michael Weiner on hand to cast doubt on the testing protocol, Ortiz denied taking steroids. On a day the union made a public show of throwing Ortiz a life preserver, Rodriguez made a rare appearance at his locker to say he had no regrets about his own admission. "I'm so proud of the way things worked out," Rodriguez said. "Since that press conference I feel like a new man. I feel liberated by the way I came out and did things.... I feel fortunate I did it the way I did it."
It was as introspective as Rodriguez gets these days. The rebooted Rodriguez almost never makes himself available to the media in the Yankees' clubhouse. Formerly chatty and analytical with reporters, whom he addressed by first name, he sometimes talked himself into trouble. So now he treats interviews the way a recovering alcoholic would bars: better to avoid them altogether. But that day he let show from within a certain satisfaction, as concentrated as a sunbeam through a window. Where once he wanted a place above all others in the history of the game—the desire for such greatness was, he said, what drove him to steroids—now he embraced being "one of the guys" on a team that was stampeding to the AL East title while cranking music and throwing pies.