Believe it or not: Alex Rodriguez has risen from the baseball dead at the age of 40 to put together one of the most unlikely seasons in the game's history—and he's doing it with a newfound joy.
ARLINGTON, TEXAS—Alex Rodriguez keeps a pad and pen near him at night.
“I’m old school,” he said. “I need paper.”
He will rise from bed, maybe after watching a West Coast game, or maybe when he’s not yet tired enough to sleep, to capture all the thoughts swimming around his head.
“I’ll start out thinking, ‘Just for a few minutes,’” he said. “And then I’ll be writing for an hour or more. It just goes on.”
Rodriguez is writing one of the most incredible stories of the 2015 baseball season, one you might even call hard to believe. This has gone on too long and the home runs have traveled too far to still be about just a nice little comeback story. We are crossing the border into amazement.
Rodriguez—a man who turned 40 years old Monday, who is playing with two repaired hips, who had not seen a competitive pitch in 17 months, who was embarrassed by average fastballs the last season he did play—is absolutely destroying major league pitching at a time when, except for last year, it’s harder to score a run than in any full season since 1976.
Even Rodriguez’s teammates have a hard time believing it.
“After I hit the home run in the third deck in Minnesota the other day,” he said, “all my teammates were saying in the dugout, ‘Holy s---, what’s going on?’”
Even Rodriguez has a hard time believing it.
“I feel like I’m in my 20s,” he said at the batting cage at Globe Life Ballpark on Monday before celebrating his birthday with—what else?—another home run, this one an opposite-field blast he hit on a pitch down and away while his top hand was coming off the bat. “It’s incredible, it's hard to explain. Somebody told me only a few balls have been hit up there in the third deck [in Minnesota], and Giancarlo Stanton was one of them.”
I reminded him that he hit a home run 477 feet at Tropicana Field against the Rays earlier this year.
“I know, but this one just felt different,” he said.
There was one more thing I had to remind him about: steroids. This is a guy who has been connected to banned substances in at least nine seasons, through his own admission, an MLB investigation, therapeutic use exemptions or his association with Anthony Galea, the Canadian doctor who pleaded guilty to bringing mislabeled drugs into the country to treat athletes. When he slumped in the 2012 playoffs against the Tigers, his response was not to take more batting practice or search for answers on video, but to call Anthony Bosch, his PED supplier in Miami, and tell him to get on a plane to Detroit with his drugs.
“You must know there are people who look at you now, the way you’re hitting the ball, and assume you’re still using,” I told him.
“I understand that 100%,” he said.
“So what do you tell the skeptics and the haters? Are you clean?”
“I am clean. The great part about this happening now is that the lesson for players, and I especially mean future players, is that if you’re clean and you’re healthy and your head’s in the right place, and you surround yourself with the right people, you’re going to get results.
“Listen, I’m healthy, happy and clean. When I came back from hip surgery [in 2013], I couldn’t hit a good fastball. If you threw 92 [mph] in or up, I wasn’t going to hit it. I had no chance. After that, and then after being out for year, I told [ESPN broadcaster] Rick Sutcliffe in spring training, ‘I couldn’t hit a fastball then, so I don’t know what to expect now.’ I really didn’t know what to expect.
“One thing I’ve been this year is consistent. Even in my really good years, I’d have some periods—two, three weeks—where I just looked terrible. It was always because of tension, trying too hard. Now I’m just happy and relaxed. I’ve been more consistent because of that. If I don’t get a good pitch to hit, I’m taking my walks and passing the baton. It’s one thing to be able to swing at bad pitches when you’re younger. But when you’re older, it really catches up to you. The ones that last are the ones who hit strikes. Knowing the strike zone, what you can hit, becomes more important.”
Such are the thoughts Rodriguez compiles at night. They are the thoughts from a survivor, a man who made it through a near-death experience as far as baseball careers go. The sights, smells and thrills of baseball are all new to him again, so he wants to preserve them on paper.
He feared his career was over after he took a scorched-earth approach to fight MLB's investigation into his PED use in the Biogenesis scandal. He took his fight to the courts and the airways, sounding brave and persecuted. But when it came time for him to swear an oath to tell the truth, he suddenly lost all the bravado. The truth crushed him. He served the longest PED suspension in the history of baseball, not just for using drugs, but also for obstructing baseball’s effort to get to the truth about him. The arbitrator in the case said Rodriguez’s use and behavior were unprecedented.
Worse still, Rodriguez feared everything about the game he loves would be taken away from him, not just his playing career. He had no safe harbor with any of the teams for which he has played—Seattle, Texas and the Yankees. If he were done playing baseball, he feared, baseball was done with him. He’d be Jose Canseco or an unofficial Pete Rose: kicked out for good, with all the locks changed.
The Yankees studied his contract with a microscope to see if any loopholes existed to be done with him and the $61 million they owed him. Finding none, they reluctantly stuck him seventh in the batting order on Opening Day. After 10 games, he was hitting .344. Manager Joe Girardi put him in the No. 3 spot. He has remained there ever since.
Rodriguez is hitting .276 with 24 home runs and 59 RBIs. He is the Yankees’ most valuable player, giving them a middle-of-the-order impact bat when nothing was expected.
(Just don’t call him the comeback player of the year. Rodriguez’s exile was due to self-inflicted, rogue behavior. He is coming back from running the baseball equivalent of a Ponzi scheme—years of doping with banned drugs that required extensive calculation to administer and keep covert. Better to reward someone like Prince Fielder, who hit only three homers last year and played in only 42 games before undergoing surgery to fuse the C5-C6 discs in his neck, and has returned with a .336 average and the most hits in the league.)
“You tell me, what do you see?” Rodriguez asked me.
I was there when Rodriguez played his first major league game at age 18, at Fenway Park in 1994. The kid was a good interview even then. I saw a teenager then and a man now who loves baseball as much as anybody I have covered—and not just the show that is Major League Baseball. He loves the nuances, intricacies, roots and history of the game. He loves baseball the way a truly great actor loves the script and the role more than he loves Broadway or Hollywood. He wanted to do the game proud, but his insecurities always got in the way. Until now.
“I see a relaxed player,” I told him. “I don’t see that guy who would bite his lower lip in the batter’s box; that’s what you did when you were tight. And it’s like you told me two months ago with the way you hold the bat now. It’s just resting on your shoulder until the pitcher is ready. There’s no tension. You can see it. The word I would use is ‘relaxed.’”
I told him two things about him have surprised me: how hard he is hitting the baseball, and how quickly he has adapted to being a full-time designated hitter. Here’s what you should know about how freakish this season has been for Rodriguez:
• He has hit three home runs that have traveled 450 feet or more. How crazy is that? With more than two months still to play, it’s more 450-foot-plus homers than he hit in any season from ages 33 to 38:
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• He has hit nine home runs this month. Only one player in his age-39 season or older (age as of July 1) has hit 10 home runs in July: Cy Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies, way back in 1927.
• His .543 slugging percentage is his best in seven years, and better than any qualified hitter 39 or older except for Barry Bonds in 2004 and Ted Williams in 1958.
• He needs only six home runs to join Hank Aaron as the only righthanded hitters this old ever to hit 30 home runs. (Only five lefthanded hitters have done so: Bonds, Steve Finley, Darrell Evans, Willie Stargell and Cy Williams.)
I told Rodriguez I did not expect him to hold up this well at this age. But then, playing only half the game has served his body well. Rodriguez never had DH’d more than 38 times in a season before this year, so I did not anticipate that a former Gold Glove shortstop and seven-time All-Star third baseman would abandon defense and accept the specialty role of DH so easily.
“It helps when you’re honest with yourself,” he said. “I can’t play 140 games at shortstop or third base any more. I know that. You have to be honest with yourself. I know the best chance for us to win games is with me being a DH, and that’s all that matters.
“There’s no stress now. Playing defense is hard work. It taxes you. If I cost CC [Sabathia] an extra 25 pitches because I didn’t make a play, I wouldn’t sleep at night.”
Some guys struggle in that role. George Brett hit .273 as a DH, mostly in his final three years after winning a batting title in 1990. Frank Thomas hit 62 points higher at first base than at DH. Gary Ward, when he DH’d for the Yankees, used to fill the time in between at-bats riding a stationery bike, watching the game on TV and pretending he was in the outfield. When the ball was hit, he would pedal as if chasing after it.
“I went to the master: Edgar Martinez,” Rodriguez said. “You go to the best if you want to learn. You went to Penn State; it’s like going to the best professor at school to learn. That’s Edgar. He helped me a lot. One of the things he taught me about being a DH is how to stay in the game mentally. Pay attention to the pitcher and the counts. What’s he throwing? What’s working? What’s not? Look at the game just like you’re playing shortstop or third base. Stay involved in every pitch. I do that both in the clubhouse, watching on TV and from the dugout.”
Not playing defense has helped his offense. Rodriguez always has been an extremely smart hitter. He is renowned for knowing when a pitcher is tipping pitches and for sitting on them. Devoting all his attention to that craft has heightened his hitting intellect. And the physical grind of taking ground balls every day and being on his feet on defense no longer tax his 40-year-old legs. He is healthier both mentally and physically by being a full-time one-way player.
Maybe he keeps this up or maybe he doesn’t. Rodriguez is on a pace to hit 40 home runs and drive in 98 runs. Time will tell. What’s more important is that Rodriguez has found joy again. Reggie Jackson used to tell Rodriguez how his father used to tell him, “Son, as long as you have a bat in your hands, you have a chance to change the story.”
Rodriguez’s newfound joy doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change the awful decisions he made. But it does change the story, pushing it in another direction, like pushing a truck out of a ditch. It is a story of renewal now. The length and frequency of his home runs are an astounding part of the story. They may be the most obvious part of the story, but they are not the most important. It’s when Rodriguez takes up his pen and glides it across his pad, capturing something that seems ethereal, as if trying to make it last, like a child chasing fireflies with a net.
“I haven’t felt like this,” he said, “in a long time.”
GALLERY: SI's rare shots of Alex Rodriguez