He made $500 million playing baseball then became a scandal-plagued Yankees pariah. Now, Rodriguez is on ABC, CNBC and Fox Sports, rebooting himself as more than a jock turned broadcaster (and J.Lo’s beau), and he may have the secret to a successful second act: “You have to own your shit.”
Alex Rodriguez raises an arm to keep an errant basketball from hitting a reporter. We are seated courtside in plastic chairs at the gym at Wayside Baptist Church — a complex of low-slung white stucco buildings in Kendall, Florida, a suburb southwest of Miami, near where Rodriguez grew up. It is a Thursday in July, and Rodriguez wears dark-wash jeans and a navy polo shirt with a small white A-Rod Corp logo — an abstraction of the erstwhile Yankee slugger’s signature arching swing — on his left breast.
Today he is filming a pilot for CNBC called Back in the Game, a concept that has Rodriguez mentoring down-and-out former athletes. The first episode features Joe Smith Jr., a 1995 NBA No. 1 draft pick whose peripatetic career included an unfortunate salary-cap scam with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rodriguez will enlist Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank to help Smith realize his ambition to start a youth basketball academy. We are at Wayside’s youth camp so producers can film Smith interacting with the kids. Most of the roughly 100 youth present don’t know Smith, but they of course know Rodriguez, one of the most famous (and, to many, infamous) athletes of his generation, so they’re asking for autographs and selfies.
It’s nearly exactly a year since Rodriguez played his last game at Yankee Stadium after a record-making, scandal-plagued major league career that began in 1994, when he was 18. “It’s night and day how content and happy and proud I am,” he says. “You being here, that would have never happened before.”
I ask whether he ever thinks about the arc of his career from superstar to outcast, and he shoots me a look that says, “Every second of every day!” Then he grabs my notebook and pen. Turning it sideways, he jots down five dates: 1994, 2000, 2004, 2014, 2017. (Curiously, 2009, when he won his only World Series, is not included.) He draws a jagged line under the numbers; 2000 (he hit 41 homers and had 132 RBIs, powering Seattle to the ALCS against the Yankees) and 2004 (his first season with the Yankees) are high points. When he gets to 2014 (when he sat out the season during the longest suspension in baseball history for using performance-enhancing drugs), he drags the pen to the bottom of the page then brings it back up to 2017. No doubt: 2014 was rock bottom. “There were nights in Miami when I was close to tapping out,” he admits.
Once the sport’s biggest outcast, in two years Rodriguez has managed to recast himself as a trusty TV presence and MLB ambassador. (Eight days earlier, during All-Star Game weekend in Miami, he opened a refurbished field at the Miami-Dade Boys & Girls Club with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who in 2013 led the investigation that resulted in Rodriguez’s suspension.)
It is a rebirth that few — least of all Rodriguez, 42 — would have thought possible a few years ago. He had made more money than anyone in baseball (nearly $500 million), dated famous women (Madonna), been caught taking banned substances (twice), repeatedly lied about it on TV and the radio, faced an investigation that turned up a cast of seedy characters and endured a public fall, a painful exile.
Now, he’s not out of place in the congenial confines of daytime and late night (guest hosting Live With Kelly Ripa; playing Egg Russian Roulette with Jimmy Fallon) and soon makes his debut as an ABC News contributor. (Rodriguez is viewed as an asset by ABC execs for his relationships with C-suite luminaries like Warren Buffet and Starwood Capital Group chairman Barry Bernlicht, whom he counts as mentors. The network hopes he’ll leverage access and conduct a different type of interview than a traditional correspondent.) He has carved out a reputation as a savvy businessman. He’s in the throes of a made-for-social media relationship with Jennifer Lopez, someone whose star wattage equals his own. He’s entering the reality TV circuit, but not on vacuous unscripted shows. The CNBC program matches his mission to help athletes prepare for life after the huge checks stop coming. And he’ll get to display his CEO persona as a “guest shark” on the upcoming season of ABC’s Shark Tank. “He was far more entrepreneurial than I expected,” notes the show’s Mark Cuban.
“He goes on TV, and he’s really good,” says Bill Simmons, an avowed Red Sox loyalist and no fan of A-Rod as a player, who in 2009 wrote a column for ESPN positing that Rodriguez united the Yankees clubhouse because he was the one guy they all loved to hate. “We’ve seen this with all kinds of athletes; they can reinvent the legacy of their career just by being on TV. It just doesn’t feel like he has the baggage of some of the stuff that he did. You look at [Barry] Bonds, [Roger] Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire; these guys are synonymous with steroids. A-Rod is the only one who has come out of the abyss.”
If any baseball fans didn’t already know that Rodriguez possesses a savant-like knowledge of and reverence for the game, they learn that after watching him as an analyst. “When he was playing and I would see him, all he ever wanted to do is talk about the great players of the past,” says Rose. “He loves the history of the game. He would love to ask me about Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. I used to play against those guys all the time.”
For a journalist, this manifests in a stream of questions. At our first meeting, Rodriguez asks me to describe my workouts, where I come from, with whom else I have talked about him (and what they said), how this interview is going to go down. “I’m a reporter at heart,” he laughs.
But what has surprised many observers (and detractors) is how he plays well with others. “Having done studio shows, a lot of success or failure comes through how well you can sell everybody else and how well they sell you,” says Simmons. “And he’s good at selling the other people, which I would not have expected. Because you would have thought A-Rod would just be like, ‘Oh, I’m in it for myself. It’s not my job to make Pete Rose look better.’ But he’s actually good at selling them. The man’s full of surprises.”
Rodriguez brings the same relentless work ethic he exhibited during his career to his new job; his prep includes dozens of phone calls — to players, managers, trainers, other broadcasters, even the batboy. (“Clubhouse kids and batboys give you the greatest information in the world,” he says.) People joke on set that Rose has zero notes and Rodriguez shows up with a stack of them.
“A lot of people come in who think TV is easy, and they want to show up 20 minutes before the red light is on and wing it,” says John Entz, president of production at Fox Sports. “Alex prepares hours before, he watches the tape afterward, he wants to be critiqued, he wants to hear what was good, what could be worked on.”
“He needed reinforcement that he was the best,” says Rose. “Some players just want be told every day how good they are. I mean, Alex was so good, I don’t even think he understood how good he was. He always needed that little pat on the back to substantiate that.”
The effort seems to be paying off. Says Entz: “One of the comments we heard most frequently, either from people who didn’t like the Yankees or Alex, was along the lines of, ‘Man, I turned on the show, I really didn’t want to like Alex, but he was so good. I can’t help but like him.’ ”
Further validation came in May when Fox’s World Series coverage won an Emmy. Adds Entz, “He’s changed a lot of people’s minds.”
Adds Rodriguez, referring to Entz: “He took a lot of shit. The people who took a chance on me early on when everybody was running the other way, those are the people who I go to war for.”
“When the thing that you love more than anything in the world is taken away from you, even if you did it to yourself, you really have to take a look at who you are and what you’re doing,” says Suzyn Waldman, the longtime Yankees play-by-play announcer. “When they took baseball away from him, something changed.”
His year of banishment was spent “turning the lens inward,” he says. He saw a psychoanalyst, he kept a journal, and he spent a lot of time with his daughters, Natasha, 12, and Ella, 9, who live nearby in Florida with their mother, Cynthia. (She and Rodriguez divorced in 2008 after five years of marriage; their split was tabloid fodder, courtesy of his then-liaison with Madonna. But they remain close, and Rodriguez mentions more than once how important it is for them to effectively co-parent.)
Never having gone to college is a source of great insecurity for Rodriguez, so during his time off, he took classes — at Columbia (value investing) and the University of Miami (marketing). He got advice from such friends as Jim Sharp, a septuagenarian lawyer who has represented polls (George W. Bush) and players (Rodriguez’s friend Andy Pettitte) and told him to give up the fight and take his punishment, and erstwhile CNN anchor Jessica Yellin (whom he met through a friend), who advised him that reporters are human beings not Schadenfreude-seeking destroyers of lives. “She told me, ‘Lean in to the media; they are people just like you; they have a job, just like you; connect with them, be yourself.’ ”
He spent a lot of time apologizing — to his family, teammates, league execs. I ask Manfred if it seems surreal to be opening ballparks with Rodriguez after being on the opposite side of the trench. “When you come up in the side of the business that I did, where you have conflict with people, you learn to move on,” reasons Manfred. “It doesn’t seem surreal to me. I’m not a grudge-holder. It feels perfectly natural to me.”
Key to the reinvention narrative was that A-Rod returned to some approximation of his one-time MVP form when he rejoined the Yankees, not so easy for a “broken-down 40-year-old” who had weathered two hip surgeries and two knee surgeries. Many predicted (or hoped) that he would not make the starting lineup. By September, he had tied Hank Aaron’s record for the most 30-homer seasons of all time.
“It’s probably too soon for me to say this, but maybe in 10 years I’ll be able to say that the ‘ ’14 sabbatical’ was one of the best things that happened in my life,” he says. When I ask if he doesn’t believe that already, he adds, “I’ll say this: That year off I just had to fucking change and stop being a jerk.”
He was recruited out of high school by the University of Miami but signed a three-year, $1.3 million contract with the Seattle Mariners with a $1 million signing bonus. “I knew my mother was tired,” he says. “My responsibility was to sign that contract.”
Among the first things he did was buy his mom a house and a car. “We were constantly moving from apartment to apartment because they were always raising the rent,” he says of his childhood. “It always felt like it was the first of the month. And I remember praying to God to slow down time for my mother.”
Today, A-Rod Corp, the holding company he started 15 years ago, includes a Miami-based real estate and construction firm, Newport Property; fitness centers in Mexico; and a real estate investment and management firm, Monument, that owns 8,500 apartments and manages 13,000 in 12 states, mostly in the Southeast and Midwest.
Buffett has been a mentor for years — ever since Rodriguez placed an unsolicited call in 2001 upon learning that one of Buffett’s companies insured his early 2000s contract with the Texas Rangers. “I called the office and said, ‘Hey, I just want to say thank you.’ ”
Buffett called back, and meetings with the Oracle of Omaha soon became a part of Rodriguez’s off-season routine. “We would sit there and go through all my businesses; he would give me all this advice. Then we would have dinner at his favorite steakhouse. At the end, I would have to eat one of those big ice cream sundaes.”
Their social media feeds are populated with pictures and videos of each other and their children. Lopez, 48, has 9-year-old twins with ex-husband Marc Anthony. “We both appreciate where we are in our lives,” he says. “We appreciate being parents, and we’re so similar; we’re both kind of workaholics.” (During one of our interviews, Lopez FaceTimes Rodriguez. “Oh look,” he says, turning his iPhone toward me, “Say hi.”)
He’s wistful about his distance from the game. “I miss my four at-bats every day. I miss the fans, the clubhouse, the boys. But I don’t miss the travel. I don’t miss waking up in pain every day.”
In the next room, the production crew from Back in the Game will shoot Rodriguez and Smith discussing the plan for Smith’s youth basketball academy. There is a dry-erase board on an easel; Rodriguez’s housekeeper spreads a freshly ironed white tablecloth on a folding table. “We want to tell the world who Joe Smith is,” explains Rodriguez.
And his legacy in the pantheon of America’s pastime? “I think that is to be determined,” he says. “But I left it all on the field. My best two years happened at 19 and as a broken-down 40-year-old. I hadn’t played in basically two years, two hip surgeries, two knee surgeries, scandal. And if you think about that arc, that tells you a hell of a story, right? The mistakes I’ve made are loud and clear. But one thing I am proud of is, I did not let those mistakes define who I am. I kept getting up.”