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A year of transformation for Miami's Alex Rodriguez

Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez at his Coral Gables office in September.
Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez at his Coral Gables office in September. Miami Herald staff

Alex Rodriguez sits behind the Fox Sports desk, as comfortable in the crisply tailored suit of his temporary role as World Series TV analyst as he is in the pinstripes of the New York Yankees. Though some sports columnists have dismissed his presence as a ratings grab by Fox (which also has Pete Rose on the air), others — even some usually harsh critics — are giving Rodriguez high marks for his insights. One thing is sure: A year ago, he wouldn’t have been sitting there.

“I’m so humbled,” Rodriguez says in his Coral Gables office a few days before the Fox Sports announcement. “So lucky.”

It has become a theme. For Alex Rodriguez, there has never been a year like this one. The combative star who once battled Major League Baseball has become a ghost. After years of repeatedly denying using performance-enhancing drugs and paying others to cover for him, Rodriguez made a deal with the feds, dropped his lawsuits against MLB and quietly served his one-year suspension from the sport that pulled him up, at 17, from his financially challenged Miami life to the majors.

The World Series seems a lifetime away from the February morning some eight months before, when a tall man in a green track suit slipped through the side door of a popular Coconut Grove breakfast eatery — water and berries, thanks — to talk about life after baseball.

He has always known he would need one. After his hand-to-mouth Miami childhood, Rodriguez isn’t about to end up another athlete-gone-broke. Though his lifetime baseball earnings have hit $375 million, more than a decade ago Rodriguez formed A-Rod Corp., a holding company for his Miami real estate construction firm, Newport Property; his Midwest-Southeast real estate investment and management firm, Monument; fitness centers in Mexico and auto dealerships.

A career’s worth of injuries (hips, knees, wrists), age — he’s 40 —and his Kryptonite status of the past year are stark reminders that his baseball career could end before his Yankees contract concludes after the 2017 season. He has served his one-year suspension from his involvement with Coral Gables-based Biogenesis, a now-closed supplier of banned steroids. At Miami charity fundraisers, fellow patrons have ignored him at best, and sometimes turned away. Even the University of Miami’s Mark Light baseball stadium has become a point of controversy, as it also carries Rodriguez’s name thanks to his $3.9 million gift.

But on this February day, the lawsuits have long been dropped. Just the day before, Rodriguez had met with New York Yankees leadership to apologize for actions over the past several years; he had already done the same with new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Though his hip surgeon had given him a clean bill of health, it was still unknown how well he would play after the year off.

But to Rodriguez, his on-field play would not be the top priority. What would matter most this season, he said, is how he behaved off the field. On that, the naysayers and doubters — and there are plenty — agreed with him.

I take full responsibility for the mistakes that led to my suspension for the 2014 season. I regret that my actions made the situation worse than it needed to be. …I can only say I’m sorry. I accept the fact that many of you will not believe my apology or anything that I say at this point. I understand why and that’s on me.

from Alex Rodriguez’s handwritten apology, issued in February 2015

A week later, A-Rod would issue a handwritten apology to baseball, the Yankees and fans. The Biogenesis legal saga would wind to a close.

Cherished Miami memory

The Yankees had an August week at home, allowing enough down time for a pregame lunch at a Madison Avenue restaurant near his New York apartment. Baby kale salad and water, please. The tall man in a white golf shirt and white trousers eased into a back corner table, discernibly more comfortable and confident than his pre-season self.

On and off the field, the season has gone better than many people — including Rodriguez — expected. The hip is holding up. A-Rod has settled in as the Yankees’ designated hitter. In May, he passed Willie Mays’ 660-home-run total, moving into fourth place all-time. A few weeks later, he collected his 3,000th hit.

In June, the opener of a two-game Yankees-Marlins series drew 33,961 to Marlins Park — 12,000 more than the 2015 average attendance at the stadium. A-Rod had a single at-bat, late in the first game. When he stepped up to the plate, the sustained roar — some boos, but more cheers — resounded beyond the bleachers. “One of the most touching times in my career was the ovation in Miami,” he said. “It’s like coming full circle.”

The Mays milestone prompted a new wrinkle. The Yankees declined to pay a $6 million benchmark bonus tied to marketing rights, saying the tarnished A-Rod brand had lost its promotional value. The parties settled with a deal that gave $3.5 million to charity, saved the Yankees $5.5 million out of pocket (part of that in taxes) and gave A-Rod the ball he smacked for a homer at his 3,000th hit, purchased by the team from the fan who grabbed it in the right-field seats.

It was a masterful move that potentially retains Rodriguez’s position for future milestones. It also continued his longtime support for charitable causes, especially Boys & Girls Clubs. The Boys & Girls Club near Coconut Grove was Rodriguez’s childhood home away from home as his single mother worked two jobs to keep the family going; it was there that he learned to play baseball.

“We’re family here,” he tells a group of Club kids gathered for a baseball clinic during the Yankees-Marlins series in June. Over the years Rodriguez has played Santa at the club on multiple occasions and made significant financial contributions, staying engaged with the club in a way that few high-profile alumni have, says Alex Rodriguez-Roig, Miami-Dade club president. Throughout this 2015 season, A-Rod has made club visits nationwide, usually without media. As part of the 3,000th-hit deal, the MLB Urban Youth Foundation would give $1 million to the Miami club, presented during a pregame on-field ceremony in late September.

For the past several years, Rodriguez has funded scholarships to the University of Miami and Florida International University. His own lack of higher education is a longtime soft spot; though not yet teens, both daughters have already picked their preferred colleges. During his suspension, Rodriguez took a marketing class in the UM business school, where he’s on the board. Post-baseball, he’s looking at executive business programs at Harvard and Wharton. If he could turn back the clock, he says, he would have gone to the U before entering the pros. “I think I would have matured a lot in four years.”

Living in the moment

By this mid-August day, Rodriguez’s life had settled into what passes for normal for a high-profile, highly paid elite athlete with a troubled past. His ex-wife, Cynthia, and daughters leased an apartment near his own rental on New York’s Upper East Side so he could spend as much time as possible with Ella, 7, and Natasha, then 10, clearly the apples of their daddy’s eyes. Before home night games, he sometimes would visit museums, galleries and artists’ studios, pursuing the art collecting that he calls “an escape.” Unlike years of old, when Madonna and other female celebrities frequently appeared on his arm, Rodriguez doesn’t tempt the paparazzi; buzz is that he’s single. The sports pundits decry a hitting slump, then applaud a home-run streak.

“This last six months have been very humbling,” he said between nibbles of the kale salad. “From a growth perspective, I’ve got a much better understanding of myself.” He doesn’t talk about it, but it’s been well reported that he’s working with a therapist. “As human beings, we forget things very quickly. One of the things I’ve tried to do in this process, I’ve tried to see things clearly and use it as motivation.”

In his pre-suspension life, he was admittedly “over the top. When you’re in a journey, you create blind spots. It’s part of where you are in your life. ... I’m in a different place now.”

Spurring the change was a desire, simply, to “end the chaos in my life. ... There were days when I woke up and I had the girls, and I was in every TV show. I was putting the papers away [so they wouldn’t see them]. But it’s beyond that.” He came back from a business trip to Mexico and called a longtime friend, now his attorney, Jim Sharp, and asked him what he needed to do to clean up his life.

Sports Illustrated head baseball writer and TV reporter Tom Verducci, who has been outspoken about Rodriguez’s past behavior, told radio host Dan Patrick last summer: “He’s not going to change the past and all the poor decisions he made over years and years of PED use. But he’s changed the story, he’s changed the narrative of who he is. I think in his heart of hearts, he looked at a future where ... no one would want anything to do with him, that he was done playing and was not going to work in or around baseball, and it scared the pants off the guy. You know how much he loves baseball.” Rodriguez, says Verducci, is more comfortable with himself than he has ever seen before.

Rodriguez says his year away from baseball provided plenty of motivation to change — and time to think about what’s really important to him. His daughters, definitely. A photographic portrait of each hangs above his office desk; another of the pair, hand in hand, hangs by the sofa. A strip of photo-booth snaps of the girls rests atop his mail. The expansive home he has just finished building in South Dade was designed around the dual needs of family and art. The best part of his year off, says Rodriguez, was going with his daughters on summer vacation in the Northwest, where they hiked, played golf, went out on a nearby lake.

Says childhood friend and business partner Jose Gomez, “Family has become a huge priority for him.” Heaven help the boys who snag his daughters’ first dates. “I will be answering the door both times,” Rodriguez says.

He has also been thinking about what he really enjoys: “being able to put on a baseball uniform at 40 years old, to bring it back to when I was a boy at the Boys & Girls Club.”

He has become a fan of living in the moment. “You play like it’s your last game, appreciating your teammates and coaches and the fans. I thought if I had one more crack at it, I would play like that.” Every day, he says, he makes time to sign autographs. During his suspension, he notes wryly, not many people wanted one.

The year off gave his battered body the chance to heal, and his psyche the space to dig deep. “The biggest hurdle is in the mirror. … Turning the lens inward and working at it is the only way.”

The hardest part of this past 18 months, he says, was talking with his daughters, explaining that the daddy who takes them to school and tennis and recitals and dance lessons has made some really big mistakes. “It took work to get there,” he says, but the effort was worth it. “They were very loving. I had a 900-pound gorilla come off my back.”

As for how he got himself into the Biogenesis mess, not even his childhood friend-turned-business partner Gomez — the kid who loaned him a pair of cleats, when Rodriguez was 8 and had none — has an answer. As for Rodriguez, he says, “I’m still working on that.”

The man in the mirror

A-Rod finished 2015 with a .250 average and 33 homers for a Yankee team that landed a wild-card slot but lost the one-game playoff to the Houston Astros. Doubters wondered whether a guy his age can possibly play this well without chemicals, no matter what he claims; he’s lied about drug use before. Rodriguez says now, emphatically, that he’s clean.

Still, Rodriguez finishes the season with something that matters to him more, he says, than a championship: a better relationship with the Yankees, with the fans, with baseball, than seemed remotely possible back in February.

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who dissed A-Rod in the preseason and denied him the $6 million bonus, now is an admirer. “He's been great,” he said in an August article in Sports Illustrated. “Whatever he articulates, it makes sense, and he's supportive of his teammates, he's humble, he's throwing bouquets to the opponents, he's respectful. He's performed at an amazing level.”

A-Rod gets an A on the comeback scale, not letting his PED history, season-long absence or 40-year-old body stop him from hitting more then 30 homers ... until August, when his body, seemingly worn out from the everyday grind, betrayed him and he hit about .200 over the final two months of the season.

Brian Kuty, nj.com, giving Rodriguez a ‘B’ for his overall season

Writes Joel Sherman in the New York Post, “Rodriguez’s offenses are such that he will never feel a full embrace of the baseball community. But this is more than ever could have been expected 12 months ago. ... He was a clubhouse leader for a tightly knit team. His counsel was sought by Brian Cashman and [Yankeees manager] Joe Girardi. He also was involved in youth initiatives spearheaded by Commissioner Manfred, who before rising to baseball’s top job had prosecuted the case that led to Rodriguez’s yearlong suspension.”

It was quite a year. But for Rodriguez himself, the highlight came in September at the pregame ceremony celebrating his 3,000th hit, his family at his side. “The neatest day of my entire career was being able to share the field and the spotlight with my mother and my two daughters. It’s my 21st year in the major leagues, and I’ve never been on a baseball field at the same time with [them]. It’s extremely special.”

When it comes to his legacy and whether he’ll ever be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Rodriguez is fatalistic. “I don’t have a vote,” he says. “All I can do is focus. If I can take that energy and give to young players and talk about the mistakes I’ve made — paying it forward is a big thing for me.” That includes speaking to students and helping other first-generation immigrants afford college.

It’s also meant owning up to — and sometimes making fun of — past foibles. Thursday night, Rodriguez appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, poking fun at one of his past poor decisions — a photo shoot in which a buff A-Rod kissed himself in the mirror. Fallon responded with a gag photo doing the same himself.

In a chat this fall in his Coral Gables office, Rodriguez says, “I’ve been surprised at how forgiving the fans, baseball and my colleagues — my baseball teammates and players I play against — have been. The irony is I’ve never been treated better in my entire career.

“I think they sense how grateful I am. And there’s the Golden Rule — I’m treating others how I want to be treated. And I’m really, really appreciating the moment. Whether you’re thanking the ball boys or thanking someone that’s parking lot security, you understand you’re part of something really special. You’re one of 750 players. We’re talking about the American Dream … and I’ve been able to do that for two decades. The year off allowed me to get a full understanding of this incredible opportunity that I have.”

What he regrets the most? He thinks for several long minutes. “I don’t think there’s just one thing. I think it’s my overall behavior.”

Holding on to that humility won’t come easy. In his wallet is a laminated list of ways to be a better person; he looks at it daily. He doesn’t share it, but the essence, he says, is something like The Golden Rule.

“Maybe not so quickly, like now, but maybe in five years, I’m going to look back and say the biggest and best thing that ever happened to me was 2014 … because I was able to turn my life around and have a new understanding and appreciation and be happy and in the moment. I was nowhere near that before.”

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