TAMPA, Fla. — There he sat, Alex Rodriguez, life coach. The Tony Robbins of the New York Yankees seemed in a good place, wearing his A-Rod Corp. sweatsuit and an at-ease expression. He was behind a mic in the media tent, answering questions about his role as a special spring training instructor. He was eager to give advice.
A-Rod is probably the most fascinating member of the Yankees since Mickey Mantle, and No. 13’s message to the youth will, in part, swipe a famous line from ol’ No. 7’s playbook: “Don’t be like me.”
“I’m in a unique position from the things that I’ve done in this game — good and bad,” said Rodriguez, who attracted a media crowd even in retirement. “I’ve learned my best lessons from some of my mistakes, and they were big ones.”
This is the next stage for the once-disgraced Rodriguez. He is now a mentor of the Yankees youth, a baton-passer of Yankee tradition. And as much as he is tasked with dispensing baseball advice, he has another responsibility: help players avoid the life mistakes he made.
Just two years ago, the Yankees refused to give a tarnished Rodriguez the privilege of speaking in the spring training media tent, where the club’s biggest stars espouse their opening statements. Instead, they relegated him and the throngs of media to the sidewalks outside the stadium and his stall inside the locker room. After his yearlong suspension, it was apparent the Yankees did not really want him around.
“Unless he can still hit,” one source said at the time.
He proved that and more, crushing 33 homers in 2015 and behaving in a fashion that made the organization finally want him to stick around. Even when he couldn’t hit anymore, last season, A-Rod left as gracefully as anyone could have expected. Now he’s back, just for a cameo, but it speaks volumes about how much has changed since the most tenuous point of his Yankees tenure.
“I’m in a unique position from the things that I’ve done in this game — good and bad … I’ve learned my best lessons from some of my mistakes, and they were big ones.”
There was a striking pronoun that kept coming up during his 15-minute news conference, this from the man famously smeared by the Mets in 2000 as the ultimate “24 plus one” player: A-Rod kept using “we” instead of “I.”
“We want our young players to, first off, be in tremendous mental and physical condition,” Rodriguez said. “Then we want them to have a great work ethic. And third, we want them to be maniacal about their routine and world masters of fundamentals.”
Rodriguez is not going to get his hands too dirty just yet. On Tuesday, his first of a three-day stint, he mostly stood around on the field, looking a little lost, trying to see where he could fit in.
He chatted with Lee Mazzilli, another special instructor. He stood behind some of the reserve shortstops as they took grounders. He spoke behind the batting cage with Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who, at the height of the angst between A-Rod and the team in 2013, famously told Rodriguez to “shut the f— up.”
Next month, A-Rod will have another three-day stint, though it sounds like he will be doing more work for the team’s TV network than on the field. He also has an upcoming CNBC reality show in which he will counsel athletes in financial distress.
If all this feels like a surreal contrast from just a few years ago, that’s because it is. And A-Rod owes everything — I mean everything — to Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner.
After Rodriguez’s yearlong suspension, Steinbrenner became his Clarence Odbody, allowing him to have his current wonderful life. Steinbrenner saved A-Rod in 2015.
At that point, A-Rod was trying to drown anyone near him in his attempt to save himself. It would have been understandable if Steinbrenner had said good riddance, despite the $61 million owed for the final three seasons on Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275 million contract. Steinbrenner surely would have just said goodbye if it weren’t for that deal. With it, Steinbrenner, who doesn’t like wasting money, welcomed A-Rod back in 2015.
If Steinbrenner had cut him loose, A-Rod would probably have gone through the rest of his life as something of a public pariah. There would have been no 33 homers in 2015. There would have been no Fox TV World Series gig, which allowed him to educate audiences via his biggest strength — talking baseball. There would have been no relatively tasteful (albeit odd) exit last August. He would not be counseling athletes about their money on TV.
“I’m really grateful,” Rodriguez said. “If it weren’t for Hal Steinbrenner believing in me and giving me one more chance to get my life back in order, I wouldn’t be here today.”
There he was Tuesday in the same tent where he made his famous admission of steroid use in 2009, pausing as he worked up some tears, claiming he started using the drugs only after he signed the then-largest contract in American sports history. Wherever the full truth lies about his use, that is buried in the past. His concern now is the future.
Rodriguez did a lot wrong in his career, but it takes more than needles to make 14 All-Star teams and win three MVP awards. A-Rod has plenty in that baseball brain to do some good.
“I think my value is taking them out to dinner and having a three-hour dinner,” Rodriguez said. “Recognizing that the first hour-and-a-half, they will probably [be] pretty nervous and pretty tight. By the second half of that dinner, they will start asking real questions.”
At some point, A-Rod should probably tell them, “Be like me — but not exactly like me.”