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."
Just as they had done throughout the season, beginning with their appearance en masse at that press conference in Tampa, his Yankees family lent their support to Rodriguez one more time. He and Jeter shared a long embrace by the dugout. Pettitte, who won the clincher, said, "I'm just happy for him to finally be able to get that monkey off his back." General manager Brian Cashman said, "He's exorcised a lot of demons. He's done it all now." And, in the wise and approving manner of someone who has been there before, Rivera decreed, "He earned it."
Rivera may have been speaking of the accolades Rodriguez was receiving for the past month alone, but he could just as well have been referring to Rodriguez's place in Yankees lore. Earlier in the season, as he mounted a subtle if persistent PR campaign to help win back fans that included unannounced visits to local schools, Rodriguez had spent one afternoon welcoming fans to Monument Park. On the one hand, his impressive personal accomplishments seemed to make his eventual enshrinement among the hallowed names of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle (and, lest we forget, Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera) a given. But the drug revelations, and especially his repeated postseason failures -- "I stunk," he said -- had left him very much on the outside looking in. Many wondered whether he would ever be allowed to join those other luminaries as true Yankees legends.
"We're all failures, that's the problem with this game," said Mark Teixeira, who encountered his share of failure this postseason, finishing with a .172 average and 16 strikeouts in 14 games. "When you succeed it feels good. Alex is a great player, an amazing player. He deserves this."
In fact, it would be hard to find a Yankee who deserved it more. Rodriguez finished the postseason with a .365 average, six home runs (equaling a franchise record) and 18 RBIs (establishing a new Yankees mark). He will never again have to answer questions about whether or not he is clutch, and whether or not he is, in that most ridiculous of phrases, a true Yankee.
Like a soaring orchestra, Rodriguez built his postseason symphony one note at a time, until the result was a cascade of beautiful music. First came a pair of RBI hits against the Twins in the very first playoff game to snap an 0-for-18 postseason stretch with runners on base. Then a game-tying home run in the ninth inning of ALDS Game 2 and another in the seventh inning of Game 3. Then another in the 11th inning of Game 2 of a superb ALCS performance against the Angels, and later the game-winning double in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series. Asked later if he had a favorite A-Rod hit from this postseason, Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher shook his head, "They all run together," he said. "But we never got tired of seeing him at the plate."
If there's anything this year has taught us about Alex Rodriguez, it's that we don't know him as well as we think we do, and we should stop being surprised by anything that happens to him. Which is why we should probably not spend too much time wondering what comes next for him. Kurt Russell, the actor who is the longtime companion of Hudson's mother, Goldie Hawn, was in the Yankees' clubhouse on Wednesday night. He had been texting Rodriguez up to a half hour before Game 6, but with his new friend nowhere to be seen at the moment, Russell was standing alone near A-Rod's locker that was still covered in cellophane to protect it from the endless supply of champagne being sprayed about, trying to determine what's next. "This will be a very interesting offseason for Alex," he said. "And I mean that in a thousand different ways. It's fair to say he's experienced just about every emotion you possibly can."
Russell is right, of course. In nine months, we saw the end of one Alex Rodriguez and the birth of another. There's no telling where he'll go from here.
Perhaps Rodriguez doesn't know either. He learned from how it began and will never forget how it ended. The Yankees' 27th World Series championship belongs to hundreds of people who made it possible, none more so than him. Which may explain why when the Commissioner's Trophy that was awarded to the Yankees shortly after midnight on Thursday morning was beginning to be passed around amongst the players it quickly became the exclusive property of Rodriguez. He carried it around the field, stopping to pose for pictures with teammates on the mound. He carried it to the dugout, stopping to thrust it toward the cheering fans who were nearly as delirious with joy as he was. Then, without stopping again, he carried it straight into the clubhouse.
In all, he kept possession the trophy to himself for well over five minutes. He had waited through 15 years of controversy and consistent excellence to get it, and he had no intention of giving it back so quickly. After the year -- and the postseason -- he had just experienced, who could blame him?