A-Rod, Act II: His playing career may be over, but Alex Rodriguez is now a TV star
- Meet the new star of baseball media: Alex Rodriguez, who is giving his once-tarnished reputation a makeover with his insightful and surprisingly relatable analyst work for Fox Sports' postseason coverage.
When a strained forearm put Andrew Miller on the disabled list for a month in 2015, the Yankees' reliever often found himself in the club’s video room during games, with a teammate. The player was technically New York's designated hitter, but to Miller he soon came to seem like something else: an oracle. He had an uncanny ability to predict what pitch an opponent would throw next and where he would throw it, and he was almost always right. “He’d sit down there and say, ‘He should throw the split right here,’” recalls Miller. “If he threw the split, it’d work perfectly. If he didn’t, it’d get killed. It was unbelievable.”
In the afternoon, the player would often approach Michael Kay, the Yankees’ longtime television play-by-play man, and compliment him on the previous evening’s commentary. “Mike, you made a really great point in the fourth inning,” he would say.
“How do you know?” Kay asked after the first time. “You were playing!”
“I go home and I watch the rebroadcasts of our games,” the player admitted.
The player was Alex Rodriguez. When Rodriguez retired—or, more accurately, when the Yankees retired him—on Aug. 12, he left as the game’s most reviled figure despite his 696 home runs. Rodriguez’s reputation was well earned, due largely but not entirely to his use of (and his steadfast denials of the use of, and the nefarious lengths to which he went to conceal the use of) steroids.
This month, though, fans have seen a new side of Rodriguez, one mostly limited to the clubhouse: A-Rod, the outright baseball nerd. That’s thanks to his seat on Fox Sports’s pre- and postgame shows during the playoffs, a runaway hit on which, in just four weeks, the 41-year-old has found something that eluded him for 22 1/2 years in the big leagues: universal acclaim.
John Entz, Fox Sports' president of production, led the hiring for Rodriguez's first stint as a broadcaster last fall. Though that went better than many expected, it was this October that Rodriguez joined Miller, the Cubs' Javier Baez and the Indians' Francisco Lindor as a breakout star, and it’s not only because of his astute and impassioned baseball geekery. “If I wasn’t doing this with Fox, I would be sitting in my living room, talking back at the TV,” he says. It’s because a man who long came across as a robot armored with overly polished chrome has revealed himself to be human after all.
As despised as he was by most fans and opponents, Rodriguez was revered in his own clubhouse (by many anyway). Now that he is a nightly presence in living rooms across America, those who once hated him can see why his teammates loved him. “The public always gravitates to someone that’s normal, someone that they can relate to,” says Phil Hughes, his friend and former Yankees teammate who now pitches for the Twins. “For so long he was the most unrelatable guy not only in baseball, but [also] on the planet. It’s nice that people outside of baseball are getting to know who he actually is, besides this villain that he’s always been portrayed as.”
[Editor's note: Sports Illustrated has a digital partnership with Fox Sports.]
As a player, behind closed doors, Rodriguez was especially good to young teammates: He sought them out to give them gentle tips; bought them suits from his guy in midtown; offered them lodging at his apartment until they found their own; ribbed them and accepted their ribbings; and encouraged them. In 2015, when Chasen Shreve—a young lefthanded reliever who had started the season well, only to fade badly down the stretch—was left off New York’s wild-card game roster, Rodriguez pulled him into a room at Yankee Stadium for a 20-minute one-on-one. “He told me how I could be a closer one day in the AL East, that what I’ve done so far is super impressive, that they wouldn’t be there without me,” Shreve says. “It was something I’ll never forget.”
On Fox, the hyper-prepared Rodriguez has exhibited his singular baseball mind by providing analysis that is both nuanced and well formulated. Before Game 6 of the NLCS, he noted that despite the conventional wisdom that extra rest is always better, he was concerned about Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw pitching after five days off, because a surplus of energy might cause Kershaw to overthrow his fastball and straighten out his curve. The Cubs would score four runs in just five innings against the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner to eliminate the Dodgers.
His long hidden humanity has also been on display every night. It has been particularly drawn out by the other disgraced former star, Pete Rose, who sits next to Rodriguez at the center of the desk—the pair is flanked by host Kevin Burkhardt and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, who has taken to the role of hulking sidekick. The 75-year-old Hit King is the id to Rodriguez’s superego and is in most ways everything that Rodriguez is not: rumpled, impulsive. He is, in other words, Rodriguez’s ideal foil.
“You probably couldn’t find two more opposite people,” says Entz. “What really bonds them together is they love the game of baseball, they like to have fun and they enjoy each other’s company.”
Just before the show’s production meeting prior to Game 2 of the World Series last Wednesday afternoon, in a chilly, faux-wood paneled trailer in the shadows of Cleveland’s Progressive Field, Rodriguez huddled with a Fox researcher, discerning what opponents batted against the curveball of Indians starter Trevor Bauer. Rose, meanwhile, asked people if they enjoyed seafood, then revealed the masticated contents of his mouth. See it?
During the meeting—in which the producers and talent brainstormed beats and mapped out the structure of the show, from which Rose almost always deviates during its first block—someone noted that the last time a team won a Series after a Game 1 loss, which the Cubs had just sustained, was in 2009, when Rodriguez’s Yankees came back to beat the Phillies. Rodriguez smiled and punched the bow-tied Rose’s shoulder. “How many did you win?” asked Rose, the owner of three rings. “Was that your only one?” It was.
Little seemed off-limits. After discussing the many reasons why a Game 2 victory was all but a must for Chicago, Rose, in his 28th year of a lifetime ban from baseball for gambling on the game, said, “The odds aren’t good for a team going down 2–0.” The room, including Rodriguez, exploded. “Careful saying odds, Pete!” said Bardia Shah-Rais, Fox Sports’ vice president of production, to further laughter.
Rodriguez says he will always miss two things from his baseball career: his four nightly at-bats—“You live for those”—and being in the clubhouse. “It’s kind of been my clubhouse fix,” he says, of his new team. “You sit in that green room, you run back and forth talking baseball, ragging on each other, having fun.”
The dynamic translates to the air, in unexpected and freeform ways. Rodriguez still very much cares about how he looks and sounds. He is as immaculately groomed and perma-tanned as ever, and he favors white shirts and custom suits in conservative tones. He also tends to pause to gather himself before delivering his thoughts, in the manner of someone whose every word has been publicly parsed since he was a teenager. But often, he is what he rarely seemed during his playing days: spontaneous.
The mischievous Rose loves to broach the topic of Derek Jeter, Rodriguez’s Yankees frenemy, and the camera immediately flips to Rodriguez for a comical grimace. “At any point we’re ready to be absolutely attacked and made fun of, which I think is one of the best parts of the show,” Rodriguez says. “No one takes themselves too seriously. So I think TV just kind of takes the filters off, and there’s no barriers.”
Rodriguez also allows himself to be the butt of jokes. He remains a television novice and often looks into the wrong camera, an event that his fellow panelists and his producers rarely allow to slide by without a remark or even a replay. “You can go one of two ways,” Rodriguez says. “You can make 400 excuses, or you can say, God, I was really horses--- today. I was bad. And I hope tomorrow’s a better day.”
“Look: Alex is a big, good-looking guy,” says Joe Buck, the Fox play-by-play man who was once as much a phenom in broadcasting as his new co-worker was in baseball. “Suits fit perfect. You expect, when he smiles, a little sparkle to come off his tooth and make the ‘ding’ sound. But he knows the game, and he can laugh at himself. He’s realized: If you mess something up, who cares?”
The show’s best moment, so far, came when none of its stars realized the cameras were rolling. After taping what was supposed to be a 15-second promo during the NLCS, Rodriguez kept quizzing Rose, the would-be Hall of Famer, about his approach to hitting with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy meeting his idol. Rodriguez asked a bat-wielding Rose: How did you break out of a slump? (One of six ways.) What was the pitch that gave you the most trouble? (The screwball.) After a captivating six minutes and 26 seconds, Thomas provided the perfect kicker: “Enough of this, it’s time to go eat.’”
“I would have stayed there for another hour asking questions, because I was so mesmerized by what he had to say,” says Rodriguez. “If you have da Vinci in the room? Or Einstein? I’m sure you would have some great questions too, right?” Fox posted the surreptitiously recorded video online, where as of Sunday it had been viewed 11.9 million times.
Why did Rodriguez agree to participate in the show? It’s not for the money: He earned more than $440 million in his career and flew the Fox production team between Cleveland and Chicago on a private plane at a cost that certainly exceeded his wages.
While he won’t spell it out, he alludes to a motivation that runs deep. “When I was 10 years old, I had two dreams,” he says. “I wanted to be a major league baseball player, and go to business school and be the CEO of a big company.” Even as he excelled at the former as few ever have, he tried to project the image of the latter, and the result, to many, seemed phony. But it seems to have stemmed from a genuine inadequacy he has long felt, as someone whose preternatural baseball skills prevented him from continuing his formal education.
When he was 18 in 1994 and rocketing up the Mariners’ system—from Class A Appleton, Wisc., to Double A Jacksonville and all the way to Seattle in three months—he would call his friends from high school in Miami, who were attending Stanford and Notre Dame and Florida State, and ask them to describe campus life to him. “I was so envious,” he says. “I wanted to be on a college campus. They were like, ‘We’d rather be at the Kingdome playing baseball. Let’s switch.’”
Although he now oversees many successful business interests and has taken classes at Columbia and Miami, he is still obsessed with colleges—particularly elite ones—23 years later. He has toured dozens of them in his free time and asks and remembers where most people he meets studied. “I think that he was just so good at baseball, there’s probably a part of him that feels he missed out on it,” Miller says. (Rodriguez can not only recite Miller’s alma mater, North Carolina, but also that of his Miller’s wife, Katie, and her parents and brother: Duke.) “Maybe he sees this as a chance to prove himself.”
It is not a stretch to conclude that Rodriguez views his TV work, in part, as a way to demonstrate his intelligence to the world in a way that never connected when he played. Buck, who was part of the group that pitched Rodriguez on the gig last fall, provides some insight. “This is an opportunity for you, to allow people to see who you are, watch you talk, see how smart you are,” Buck says he told Rodriguez. “And get your name back.”
These days, wherever Rodriguez goes—even, in one memorable instance, a restaurant lavatory—he is approached by new fans. “They’re only talking about my work at Fox,” he says. “And not my work that I did for 22 1/2 years on the field. Which is strange, but funny.”
Rodriguez’s rehabilitation is incomplete. He still won’t, exactly, admit to his past misdeeds. “Sometimes I look at the mistakes I’ve made and I cringe, about the stupidity of them,” he says, with a lack of specificity that could only have been workshopped by an ace publicist. Improbably, though, a man whose reputation seemed forever cemented has, in no time at all, jackhammered a new one, simply by being—mostly—real. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have a better second half, I guess,” says the immensely wealthy three-time MVP of his life. “A better back nine.”