I’ve probably written more about Alex Rodriguez than I have about any other athlete (last winter’s entry here). He has been everything a sportswriter could ask for: outgoing, vain, naive, foolish, and a hundred other celebrity adjectives. He’s been proud of all of them, even as his on-the-field performance—you know, his job—has suffered at the times it’s needed most. The stats tell part of the story. Until this year, he has been ordinary in the playoffs: not as bad as his critics say, but nothing befitting one of the best players in the game. Three years ago, he was benched against the Detroit Tigers when he was supposed to be carrying the Yankees past an inferior team. At the beginning of this year, he was outed as an incurable narcissist and steroid user in a book by Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts. It was the best thing that could have happened to him.
For years, A-Rod had been embarassing himself in increasingly ridiculous ways, and this March, the bubble finally burst. Short of being convicted of any sort of crime, the public’s love affair with the A-Rod foibles was over. People like intrigue, but they don’t cheaters (or what they consider cheaters, at any rate). So A-Rod fell into the background like only he could: he stopped talking, and started dating Kate Hudson. Only in A-Rod-Land can you start dating Goldie Hawn’s daughter and somehow become less interesting, but that’s exactly what happened.
Instead of being the incurable narcissist with the cerebral, psychologist wife whom he tried to please, he started a frivolous relationship with someone who actually appeared to like him. For all A-Rod’s popularity, he has always seemed very alone, trying to fill the significant gaps in his life with newspaper headlines and the plaudits of the baseball aristocracy. His bizarre fascination with cooler-than-thou Derek Jeter was odd, unsurprising evidence of this.
With a relaxed, simmed down A-Rod tearing up everything he sees at the plate, the rapport between him and Jeter has mellowed significantly. Every time something happens that’s good for the Yankees, it’s the two of them clapping and hollering on in lockstep. That is, unless it’s another one of A-Rod’s home runs. Then it’s only Jeter, clapping away on the top step for a teammate he finally respects.
It’s hard to talk about A-Rod without talking about Jeter, and I suspect that Jeter realizes how much he needs Rodriguez these days. Jeter is still a great player, playing at a Hall of Fame level, but the needy, nervy A-Rod threatens to suck the life out of a Yankees team with brutal efficiency. It’s possible and likely that the Yankees’ new additions have kept the clubhouse “loose,” and with Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia working their magic, A-Rod feels like he’s just part of the club of elites instead of bearing the weight of the Yankees season on his shoulders. If Jeter was impervious before, maybe he was oblivious to how much the toll took not on Rodriguez, but the team as a whole. For the first time, it appears they genuinely like each other.
Make no mistake: if the Yankees win this title, it will be A-Rod’s World Series. Jeter will get “one for the thumb,” but the talk will all be about Rodriguez. He’s done so much to lead them there so far it’s almost inspiring to think that he might be able to keep it up. Just as Barry Bonds transcended his October woes to turn in a signature postseason, it appears A-Rod is going the same. The difference is that Bonds did it through methods that ultimately made him a villain (and perhaps not incidentally, he lost). A-Rod did it the other way: by finally becoming the good guy.