In the lateafternoon of Aug. 21, in a batting tunnel beneath the stands of Boston's FenwayPark, Alex Rodriguez toiled away with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long.Rodriguez, in his 14th full season in the major leagues, was batting just .254,and never before had he hit so poorly that deep into a season. He'd never evenbeen within 28 points of that mark. It wasn't so much the batting average,though, that bothered Long. "You've had a lot of trouble getting runners infrom third base," Long told Rodriguez. "You're something like 20percent getting guys in from third with less than two outs. You're too good ofa hitter for that. You've got to be a lot better than that. Let's trysomething."
This is an article from the Nov. 2, 2009 issue
Getting runnersin from third base with fewer than two outs is the one situation in baseball inwhich a hitter is expected to produce, because virtually any kind of contactother than a pop fly will get the job done. But coming through when expected,given his lackluster postseason history as a Yankee, was the one prominent holein Rodriguez's otherwise voluminous baseball résumé.
Long had an idea.He told Rodriguez to set his feet farther apart in his batting stance,positioning them wider than his shoulders. This would give him a more stablebase, like opening the legs of a tripod. But its greater utility would be tosimplify Rodriguez's movements to the ball. With a wider stance, Long reasoned,Rodriguez would have to reduce the height that he raised his left foot, the legkick that served as the trigger mechanism for his swing. It would also reduceany movement of his head. The goal was to keep things simple.
That night,Rodriguez went 4 for 4, the Yankees demolished the Red Sox 20--11 and the lasttweak in the six-month remaking of Alex Rodriguez—surgical, contritional,aspirational, mechanical—was complete. In 45 games since then, Rodriguez hasbatted .379 with 14 home runs, 48 RBIs and a .458 on-base percentage. Thosetotals include nine high-stakes postseason games in which he has exceededexpectations, hitting .438 with five home runs in 32 at bats. And thankslargely to A-Rod, the Yankees dispatched the Angels in six high-strung ALCSgames to move on to the franchise's 40th World Series and, at last, at age 34,his first.
How Rodriguezfinally made it to the World Series is a baseball story. That makes it achanged story about Rodriguez, who entered this year as a human silo of tabloidfeed. In July 2008, midway through the only season among the past 15 in whichthe Yankees did not make the playoffs, Rodriguez split with his wife, Cynthia,and just 15 days later announced a different kind of partnership, with aHollywood talent agency. Already a car dealer, real estate mogul, WarrenBuffett chum and Madonna BFF, Rodriguez said in a statement, "Partneringwith William Morris will enable me to broaden the scope of my career increative and innovative ways. I'm excited to see what we will be able toaccomplish together, both domestically and abroad."
Fifteen monthslater, however, Rodriguez has found something even the most talented agentcould not invent: happiness. It was right there all along for him in the gameof baseball. All he had to do, just as Long told him in the batting tunnel, wasto simplify his approach.
"AlexRodriguez is now a ballplayer," says his longtime agent, Scott Boras."There was a time when he was lost in other things and listening to otherpeople. Alex figured out it's an honor to be a great ballplayer. It's enough tobe a great ballplayer."
How differentthings looked last March. He came to spring training an admitted steroid user(flushed to admission only because of an SI.com report in February). Hismarriage was ending, and on March 9 he had to have hip surgery, which put hiscareer on hiatus for two months. Having baseball and his credibility taken awayfrom him, with time to reflect on those losses during his rehabilitation inColorado, changed Rodriguez, according to Long. "Everybody who cheated[with steroids] carries that around with him," Long says. "They knowinside they cheated. Deep down you can't feel good about it. So to have it comeout, yes, I think as hard as it was, there was some freedom. Plus, if you'regoing through a divorce, I don't care what line of work you're in, that makesdoing your job even more difficult."
Rodriguezadmitted at a press conference on Feb. 17 that he had used steroids for threeyears while playing for the Texas Rangers. Six months later, at Yankee Stadium,Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz held his own news conference after theThe New York Times reported that he was on a 2003 list of players who allegedlyflunked a drug test. With players' association general counsel Michael Weineron hand to cast doubt on the testing protocol, Ortiz denied taking steroids. Ona day the union made a public show of throwing Ortiz a life preserver,Rodriguez made a rare appearance at his locker to say he had no regrets abouthis own admission. "I'm so proud of the way things worked out,"Rodriguez said. "Since that press conference I feel like a new man. I feelliberated by the way I came out and did things.... I feel fortunate I did itthe way I did it."
It was asintrospective as Rodriguez gets these days. The rebooted Rodriguez almost nevermakes himself available to the media in the Yankees' clubhouse. Formerly chattyand analytical with reporters, whom he addressed by first name, he sometimestalked himself into trouble, so now he treats interviews the way an alcoholicwould bars: better to avoid them altogether. But that day he let show fromwithin a certain satisfaction, as concentrated as a sunbeam through a window.Where once he wanted a place above all others in the history of the game—thedesire for such greatness was, he said, what drove him to steroids—now heembraced being "one of the guys" on a team that was stampeding to theAL East title while cranking music and throwing pies.
"I'm enjoyingthe game at a level I didn't enjoy before," he said. "I was so consumedabout trying to do special things in this game. Now I am just consumed aboutone thing: winning. This is the best I've ever gotten along with myteammates."
And then therewas this admission, which defined 2009 for him better than his regular-seasonstats (.286 batting average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs): "I'm focused onplaying baseball. Less is more."
He has stayedmostly out of the front of the paper, the business section and, except for hisromance with the actress Kate Hudson (who is described by one Yankee as"really down to earth; great for him"), the gossip pages. He hasimpressed Ray Negron, a Yankees adviser who helps arrange many communityinitiatives for the team, with his increased volunteerism, such as visits toschools and hospitals and writing a check to a Bronx youth baseball league whenhe heard it was in danger of folding.
"There's adifference in Alex this year, by far," Negron says. "He was always goodabout [community involvement], but this year he has taken it to another level.All year long it's been, 'What can we do?' One day he went out to playstickball in the streets in the Bronx with the kids, unannounced. Before youknew it there were kids running from every direction, every block. They lovedit."
Rodriguez carriedthis lightness into the postseason, the crucible that in past years hadrevealed his low melting point. In his previous 59 postseason at bats, datingto Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, in which the Yankees magnificently blew athree-games-to-none lead to Boston, Rodriguez batted .136. In that time he cameto the plate with 38 runners on base, and he left every one of them on, going 0for 27.
It helpsRodriguez that the Yankees have six other hitters in their lineup who hit morethan 20 home runs this season. Says Long, "The difference now is that he'sswinging at strikes. I can't remember one time this postseason that he reallychased something." (In the first two postseason series Rodriguez swung andmissed only five times in 52 swings, a 91% contact rate, 13% higher than duringthe regular season.)
The Yankees didcontrol two games against the Angels because of the pitching of ace CCSabathia. But it was Rodriguez, like the queen on a chessboard, who constantlyinfluenced strategy. With the Yankees three outs away from a 3--2 loss in Game2, he homered on an 0-and-2 pitch from Angels closer Brian Fuentes in the 11thinning. The Yankees would win, 4--3 in 13 innings.
Rodriguez alsohomered in Game 3, when the Angels won 5--4 and in Game 4, a 10--1 New Yorkblowout. In one stretch, beginning with his final two at bats of the regularseason, Rodriguez homered on seven of 24 balls he put into play, turningOctober into glorified batting practice. So impressed was Angels manager MikeScioscia that he twice ordered Rodriguez intentionally walked in the ninthinning with nobody on base. Until then, there had been only one intentionalwalk in postseason history with the bases empty in the ninth inning.
True to his newform, Rodriguez let his postseason stand with little comment. "I don't talkmuch anymore," he said when he turned up one day in the formal interviewroom. "I don't ever have to explain myself. That's a good thing."
There can be nodoubt that the $423.5 million the Yankees spent in 11 days last December onSabathia, first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitcher A.J. Burnett helped put theYankees back in the World Series for the first time in six years. But thebiggest boost has come from a player who was already there, one who is simply agood baseball story right now.