A-Rod was the gift that kept on giving.
That’s one of the best things I can say about covering Alex Rodriguez since 2004. As a beat writer, the worst thing possible is a dull team filled with uninteresting players.
A-Rod may have been a lot of things, but boring was not one of them.
He was Andy Dufresne from “The Shawshank Redemption,” crawling through a filthy sewer only to come out (mostly) clean on the other side. And he did it twice.
There are a million things I can recount about covering Rodriguez. The 2004 season alone included the Jason Varitek brawl, a huge ALDS against the Twins, the historic ALCS collapse against the Red Sox, the Bronson Arroyo slap play. The list seems endless.
Yet when I reflect back on the past 12 years, the day that stands out is February 8, 2009. That’s the day his entire story changed, as did the way we looked at him.
Through all of the clownish antics we had been subjected to during A-Rod’s first five years with the Yankees, the one thing nobody had ever questioned was his talent and work ethic.
He was destined to pass Barry Bonds and had been tabbed as the guy to “clean up” the home run record.
Then came that fateful February morning.
I was slated to leave for spring training just a couple days later, so I planned on spending a quiet Sunday with my wife and two sons. I had promised my 3-year-old that we would go to the mall so he could go on the rides, but just as I was putting my shoes on, my phone rang. It was my sports editor, Leon Carter.
“A-Rod tested positive for steroids,” Leon said. “We have a lot of work to do today.”
After I broke the news of the Sports Illustrated report to my wife, she informed my son we weren’t going to the mall after all. He came into my room and asked what happened. Explaining steroid use to a three-year-old isn’t an easy task, so I put it in the simplest terms I could think of.
“A-Rod cheated at baseball, so Daddy has to work today,”” I told him.
The performance-enhancing drug scandals will certainly be a prevalent part of every story written about A-Rod’s career. I often wonder what that career might have looked like without the steroid scandals, though we’ll obviously never know.
From his first year in pinstripes in 2004, it was clear that covering Rodriguez was going to be a different animal. There were bigger stars on the team — well, one, anyway — and plenty of future Hall of Famers, but A-Rod had an “It” factor that few others possessed.
He was polarizing. He was the Howard Stern of baseball. Whether you loved him or hated him, you paid attention to him.
Rodriguez bounced back from the 2004 disaster with MVP seasons in 2005 and ’07, but three straight October failures — he went 7-for-44 (.159) in first-round losses to the Angels, Tigers and Indians — haunted him.
There were the stories away from the ballpark, too. What other player would immediately come to mind upon the mention of a mirror, a centaur or Madonna?
He opted out of his contract during Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, was called “bush league” by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons after allegedly screaming “I got it!” to throw off a Toronto infielder and had his marriage blow up in the most public way possible on the front pages.
As a beat guy, you’re there every day. There’s accountability on both sides. I can’t even count the number of uncomfortable and preposterous questions I’ve had to ask A-Rod through the years. Some he answered with a smile, others he chose not to answer.
Through the good and bad, one thing was always clear: he loved baseball. He loved talking about the game, watching the game and obviously, playing the game.
On June 7, 2007, the Yankees selected a tall, lanky righthander named Andrew Brackman in the first round. We were standing in the visitors’ clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field before the game that night when A-Rod learned of the selection. His eyes lit up immediately.
Turns out Rodriguez had seen Brackman pitch at N.C. State while visiting a neighbor who was playing for the Wolfpack, leaving him quite impressed by the 6-foot-10 righthander.
“I am pumped about this guy,” A-Rod said before giving us a detailed scouting report on Brackman.
Imagine, a two-time AL MVP — who was in the middle of a third MVP season — getting jazzed up about a draft pick who might not be in the majors for a few years? That was classic A-Rod.
After opting out of his contract, he ultimately signed the 10-year, $ 275 million pact that doesn’t expire until the end of next season. That contract agreement was the first major story I broke at the Daily News, and while I was obviously happy about that, I knew it meant another decade of covering all things A-Rod, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
It’s been every bit of that and so much more.
The aforementioned Sports Illustrated PED report was a turning point in Rodriguez’s career. We were no longer just dealing with silly tabloidy stories. This was much more important, especially given A-Rod’s supposed place as the game’s white knight.
There was the spring 2009 press conference during which Rodriguez admitted to using “boli” in Texas. Cousin Yuri. Angel Presinal. Hip surgery. It was like a soap opera that saw a new chapter unfold every day.
When A-Rod returned from the surgery, he decided to let his bat do his talking for him. That was the best decision he ever made.
He had a huge season, followed by a monster October that helped lead the Yankees to the World Series title, finally shedding the monkey — more like a 500 -pound gorilla — from his back.
He had pulled off the Shawshank trick, going from a dirty, hated player to a champion riding up the Canyon of Heroes.
Three years later, he found his way back into the sewer, and this one was even dirtier.
I won’t recount all the details of the Biogenesis scandal — our I-Team does an excellent job of that in its story — but it brought out the worst in Rodriguez. After being slapped with a historic 211-game suspension, he took on everyone he could, from the Yankees to MLB to his own players union.
Only when he realized he was fighting a losing battle did he accept a 162-game suspension and drop all his lawsuits. He had three years remaining on his contract once the suspension was over, but nobody expected him to come back at the age of 39 and resume a productive career.
But that’s exactly what he did.
“I’m going to be hopefully remembered as someone who tripped and fell a lot,” A-Rod said Sunday. “But someone that kept getting up.”
He came back last spring saying all the right things, never griping as he was sent on long bus rides across Florida for exhibition games. It didn’t take long for him to reestablish himself as a middle-of-the-order presence, hitting 33 homers to help the Yankees get back to the playoffs. There was no shame in wearing a No. 13 jersey to the ballpark.
With greater expectations on him this year, the 40-year-old was unable to find his power stroke again. He saw his playing time decrease dramatically as he approached his 41st birthday, yet he continued to work as hard as ever, determined to make the most of whatever chances he received.
Ultimately, those chances never came. Instead, there was a press conference Sunday morning announcing that his final game would be Friday.
Through all of the tumult and turmoil of the past few years, Rodriguez was able to repair his image with a lot of people, most notably — and incredibly — the Yankees.
Hal Steinbrenner could have easily decided to release A-Rod, write him the big check and send him on his way. Instead, he asked A-Rod to stay on as an adviser and instructor to work with the team’s young players. Could you ever have imagined such a scenario two years ago? I know I couldn’t have.
The Yankees may be a better team in the future without A-Rod on the roster, but they certainly won’t be as interesting.