By Bob Nightengale |
Alex Rodriguez played his final baseball game in 2016. In retirement, he’s raised a significant question: Has any athlete’s image ever changed so dramatically, from bad to good?
“It’s absolutely unbelievable,’’ New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s the greatest rehab ever. If you had told me a couple of years ago that his image would change like this, I would have said, ‘What?’’
It was just four years ago that A-Rod was a pariah in baseball. He was suing Major League Baseball. He was suing the players union. He was suing the New York Yankees’ team doctor. He even hired investigators to dig up information on MLB officials, including Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Today, he is revered in the baseball community, and beginning Sunday night, will be on center stage each week on the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball telecast with Matt Vasgersian and Jessica Mendoza.
“I’ve grown a lot, and to a degree, changed a lot in everything I do, not just baseball and broadcasting,’’ Rodriguez said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles before his Thursday ESPN telecast with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. “I’m so grateful and appreciative, from four years ago where things were so difficult, to where I am today.’’
It’s almost as if America has forgotten that Rodriguez was exiled from the game, receiving a historic year-long ban for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, fought MLB officials in court, was banished from the Yankees, and likely would never have played again without the Yankees owing the final three years of his 10-year, $275 million contract.
Now, he is not only welcomed in our homes, but revered, a celebrated former great.
“I don’t think Americans forget,’’ Rodriguez says, “they just understand better. They can learn from my mistakes. I can talk about my mistakes, own up to them, serving my time, and talking about being a different person.
“I get to talk about the good, the bad, the ugly.’’
Rodriguez, a 14-time All-Star, three-time MVP and World Series champion, is the centerpiece of ESPN’s revamped broadcast team, and Mendoza and Vasgersian are just as thrilled as Rodriguez to be working alongside him.
“I learned more about him the last month than the last 16 years,’’ Mendoza says. “I was around him, but I never felt like I knew him. Now, as we’ve had these deep conversations, everything just seems so much more real than it ever was.
“He’s lived like 10 lives when you think about everything he’s gone through. You see him trying to make sure that people are getting a better idea of who he is, and people respond to him. He looks himself in the mirror, and says, “I screwed up,’’ than blaming anyone.’’
This could turn out to be season that none of them forget, with Vasgersian replacing Dan Shulman as the play-by-play announcer, Rodriguez taking over for Boone, and Mendoza as the only returnee.
“I’m so looking forward to this,’’ Vasgersian says. “I give Jess a lot of credit for kind of being thrust into this role without any notable television experience, has rolled up her sleeves and taken off with it.
“And Alex wants to be as good at this as he was as a player. He’s driven by it. He has consulted a lot of baseball people in the broadcast world, watched a lot of tape, and I think he’ll wow people by what he has to offer.’’
But, make no mistake about it, when the lights and cameras go on Sunday Night Baseball beginning with Sunday’s game with the Dodgers and Giants, all eyes and ears will be on A-Rod.
“He has worked very hard for redemption,’’ Vasgersian says, “whether it’s being on Shark Tank or helping bankrupt athletes, or putting stuff on Instagram. People see that he’s a good guy and able to redeem himself.”