A-Rod on Doping, Getting Therapy and No Longer Being the Villain

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A-Rod on Doping, Getting Therapy and No Longer Being the Villain

Alex Rodriguez has, in retirement, fashioned a comeback that far exceeds any reversals he engineered on a baseball field. It wasn’t all that long ago that the former Yankee was one of professional sports’ biggest bad guys, and not without reason. He was suspended for the 2014 season for violating the league’s antidoping rules. Even aside from that, he was widely considered to be vain and disingenuous, especially in his hometown. (The New York Post honored him with “A-Hole” and “A-Rat” cover lines, following allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs.) But three years after his last game, Rodriguez, newly engaged to Jennifer Lopez, is a respected baseball broadcaster, a warm and self-deprecating presence on social media and a deferential businessman. You couldn’t exactly call his image rehabilitation organic, given how hard he’s worked at it, but it has no doubt been successful. “I tried to build a certain image while I was playing,” Rodriguez said, “and that plan failed miserably.” Now, he explained simply, “I have more clarity.”

What have you learned that would have made dealing with the press1 easier as a player? What I’ve learned is that a lot of it was self-inflicted.

What specifically? I represented myself the wrong way. Coming out of the suspension,2 I wanted to be honest, be accurate and be fair with the media — and mix in levity. I could not wait to make fun of myself. Doing that made everybody relax about me. I’d wake up the next morning thinking I was going to get crushed by them for a mistake I’d made. But then I’d see that they’d barely be talking about my [expletive] up because I’d beat them to the punch. I still think that, for the most part, I had a good relationship with the media, but it became excellent postsuspension.

Did the depiction of you as a villain feel like a misrepresentation? I would have booed me, too. I felt that being the tough guy who had all the answers and being robotic was the right thing to do. I was wrong, and now I think it’s O.K. if I say, “I don’t know the answer.”

This is almost more of a philosophical thing, but baseball has a long history of players using performance enhancers — “Ball Four”3 talks about guys gobbling amphetamines before games. And I’m thinking of that in conjunction with a point Malcolm Gladwell once made4 in The New Yorker, about how players aren’t allowed to take P.E.D.s, but it’s O.K. for them to get Tommy John surgery, which is also a completely unnatural method of aiding your career. Does it seem at all arbitrary that baseball says P.E.D.s are cheating but certain other things aren’t? I don’t know. I think, with time, we’ll be able to determine what’s what.

Of all the big-time baseball players who were implicated during the steroids era, you seem to have done the best — better than guys like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens — at coming out of that controversy in a positive way. Why is that? I cannot speak about anybody else. If you’re asking about me, I think it started with taking full responsibility for my missteps. I paid a huge price: the longest suspension in the history of M.L.B. for P.E.D. use. And while I was away, I took that year to reflect. I wanted to understand why I kept shooting myself in the foot. I wish it was in the foot, actually.

What understanding did you arrive at? I’m still a work in progress, but one thing I learned was that I was good enough. I did not need to overreach. And when I turned the lens inward, I found this incredible amount of gratitude and appreciation and respect for others and myself in a way that perhaps was not there in the past. With that attitude, I was able to enjoy life better. It made me a nicer person to be around; it made me a better father.

Before making the personal realizations you’ve described, how distorting was fame to your self-conception and decision-making? I went to my high school prom, and several months later I was playing at Fenway Park. I was good enough physically to be there, but mentally, I was still in high school. I never make excuses for myself, but not benefiting from being on a college campus for four years and having the time to evolve — I lost my way somewhere along the line.

How aware were you of any emotional disconnects in the moment? You know when something doesn’t feel right. What you find is that — and I’ve never thought about it this way before — you suppress that voice that’s telling you not to do the wrong thing.

This is maybe a shot in the dark, but did the suspension really cause this 180-degree epiphany for you? Or was it maybe more that it — and its aftermath — gave you a way of understanding your own story that allowed you to move forward emotionally and publicly? Well, when the suspension first happened, I was pissed off at everyone. I was blaming everyone. It wasn’t until I got deeper into it that I said: No, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault.

Were you in therapy at the time? That’s when I got into it.

Is there any culture of therapy in major-league baseball? What’s more common in baseball is performance coaches. That’s totally different than deep therapy, which is serious business. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. In many ways, it’s rewiring the brain.

Before your suspension, did you or your advisers ever discuss just coming clean about P.E.D.s? Or was the strategy always deny, deny, deny? This part, I want you to make sure that we’re superclear. Because I want this to be a story that’s about the facts, and it’s not me trying to [expletive] you. I think I didn’t have the tools that I have today. Let’s go to the next one, David, and we’ll come back to this, because that’s real important. I want to make sure that I address that in a clear way.

How consciously, as you’ve transitioned out of playing, have you tried to build a new brand or persona for yourself? Today I showed up here with you, and I didn’t know anything you’d want to talk to me about, and I’d rather have it be that way. Before, I would have studied for six months before sitting down with you. I wanted to be more buttoned-up and have done due diligence and seen what your angle was. Now I just trust we’re going to have a good conversation, and I go for it.

What persona or brand were you trying to build back then? Robotic, tough. Very serious.

How did that Details photo shoot where you were kissing your reflection in a mirror fit in with that image? I cringe at that.5 We were ending the photo shoot, and I wanted to run out of there. I think Steven Klein was the photographer, and he was like, Let’s just shoot one more. And I’m like, What? I just want to eat a burger. Let me get out of here.

Were burgers part of your diet back then? No, but I was probably starving. Yeah, I just kissed the mirror, not even thinking. But I did a lot of things like that. I took my shirt off at Central Park and decided to get sun in the middle of the day.6

Knowing that people would see you and take photographs, right? In Central Park?

Yes. No. Because you think you’ll just do this for 15 to 20 minutes and get some sun. I’m pale as hell. Again, even those situations, if I would have handled them with some levity and more humility, I would have defused the entire thing.

There’s that rumor about your having a portrait of yourself as a centaur. 100 percent not true. I wish it was true because it’s such a cool story.

What has Jennifer Lopez7 taught you about being a public figure? She’s obviously skilled at it. I’ve never met anyone who’s more honest. She’s so authentic and genuine. It was strange to see someone of such magnitude be so normal, be such a great mother and partner and friend. How can you be like this and then go perform in front of 80,000 people? But that’s her superpower.

Why has balancing your public and private selves in that way been more of a struggle for you? I don’t know. I wish I did.

How hard was the cultural transition from sports to business? There’s financial language that’s different, but in other ways, they’re exactly the same. What you want to do is create a winning culture, where incentive packages are based on the team winning. If you’re not careful and you put in the wrong incentive packages, you can create a culture where everyone is fighting for themselves. The same thing goes in baseball.

There is that expectation in sports that players will sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the team. But if each professional athlete is his or her own business, aren’t the personal incentives fundamentally at odds with the incentives of the team’s management, who are rewarded for team performance? Or is the whole ethos of subsuming your individual self-interest into the team’s a bunch of romantic horse crap perpetuated by those who have a vested interest in athletes’ continuing to think that way?8 Look, I played for 22 years and won one championship.9 Dan Marino and Charles Barkley — they didn’t have championships, and to this day I know they hear the echoes. I feared that. So ’09 was an amazing experience, but the other half was relief. But I also had already made a small fortune. It’d probably be different if you asked me when I hadn’t signed my contract.10 Then that becomes a question of would you rather hit .330 and not win or .270 and win? That’s where it gets a little tricky.

Because that batting-average difference equates to a difference of millions of dollars in salary? Tens of millions. But there are unique players that are truly all about winning. Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Dustin Pedroia.

Do you include yourself on that list? I do. I do. I also had an incredible passion to be great. But yeah, probably I do. That’s why I moved over to third base from shortstop. That’s an example of putting the team ahead of myself.

Your life as a baseball player was so regimented. Do you miss that structure? I have as predictable a schedule as I can, but nothing will be as predictable as a baseball season. I was in love with that structure. I had a list of my 10 things I had to do, and I would check it every night before I went to bed to see how many I’d done. I was maniacal about my work ethic. When I was about 19 years old, I played with a guy by the name of Joey Cora.11 He’s 5-foot-7 on a good day, he had knee problems and I saw him arriving at the stadium at 11 in the morning for a 7 o’clock game. I saw the way he took care of his body — all the work he did to get ready to play. And here I was a young shortstop hitting .358. I’m going down the stretch competing for the M.V.P., and nothing hurt. I felt like I could rip through a wall, and the wall would hurt, right? God, those were the good old days. But I remember sitting down and watching Joey Cora, and I’m like, His body hurts. He doesn’t complain. He just gets to the clubhouse earlier and earlier. And I said, If I can take my God-given ability and have his type of hunger and desire, I’ll take my chances.

Do you still have a checklist you look at every night? I do. I’m old school. I remember things better if I write them out. The other day, Jennifer said something brilliant at, like, 2 in the morning. I reached over to get my notebook, and everything falls on the floor. Then I grabbed it and wrote it down.

What’d she say? It was about Mariano Rivera. She said, “Mo getting 100 percent12 tells you more about his greatness off the field than it does on the field.” I thought, That’s so true. I played with him all these years, and I couldn’t have come up with that.

When you were playing, did you ever see another player and think he was better than you? If you take away my first year and my last season, I don’t think I ever saw that.

Would the answer be different if you’d played against Barry Bonds? I played against Barry. Interleague.

Do you look up to anyone in the business world the way, as a kid, you looked up to, say, Cal Ripken? Think about what Jamie Dimon has done at J.P. Morgan. Barry Sternlicht at Starwood. Jon Gray at Blackstone. Obviously, our Babe Ruth is Warren Buffett.

Buffett’s philanthropy is impressive. My passion in giving back is for education. I’ve had an opportunity to co-teach a class at Stanford Business School.

What was the class? Reputation management.

Was the key lesson authenticity? That was definitely up there. And not being afraid of pivoting.

Something a shortstop is good at. How did getting rich at a young age change your relationships with the people around you? You have a young kid who learned how to play baseball at the Boys & Girls Clubs. Then you climb through the system, you become the No. 1 draft pick. You bypass college. At 21, you get over $10 million in a contract, which is crazy. Then you get a contract that breaks the all-time record in sports. Usually journeys have an arc of many years, but this all happened to me in seven or eight years after high school. So it was a culture shock for me and those around me. There’s no preparation for it.

What were the effects of that culture shock? People around you think that you have all that cash. Whatever they read in the paper you signed for, they feel like someone came in a Brink’s truck and dumped all the money in your garage. And for whatever reason, some people think, Where’s my cut? When that doesn’t happen for them, it can grow into resentment and disappointment.

Let’s revisit the question I was asking earlier. Before being suspended, was the idea of coming clean about P.E.D.s ever discussed? I’ve taken the position of just owning everything. At some point, and maybe it’s in the future, I feel like this is an answer I would like to give on-camera because I think people have to see my sincerity. I’m giving it to you straight because I respect you and I don’t want you to think that I’m [expletive] you in any way. So that’s why I’d rather step away and say, “David, I’d rather not answer that because I’m not ready to give that truth yet.” Does that make sense?

I think I understand what you’re saying. What’s the one piece of advice you have for other athletes trying to transition into business? You have to find people that are experienced, conservative, have alignment with you and have a moral compass. There are so many pitfalls along the way, and if someone doesn’t have a moral compass, there’ll be trouble.

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