Alex Rodriguez, the Fox pregame-show version of himself, was sitting on a black couch in a trailer outside Citi Field on Friday night talking about the World Series. This is a new role for Rodriguez, an unexpected diversion in a journey of athletic greatness tainted by performance-enhancing drugs, and one he is excelling at. So he looked happy to be talking about baseball as he peered into his interviewer’s eyes, answered some questions, avoided some others and posed a few of his own. He discussed his love of preparation, his note-taking, his working with Pete Rose (“When it comes to baseball, he has an Ivy League mind”) and his admiration of Keith Hernandez.
Rodriguez previewed what he would later say on the air about the physical strength of Mets starter Noah Syndergaard and the possibility that the Mets could beat the Kansas City Royals, who were up by 2-0. If the Yankees could sweep the Royals in the Bronx earlier this season after dropping two of three, he said, the Mets could win.
This has been a rather remarkable evolution: Rodriguez, a noted baseball transgressor, working for one of baseball’s network partners, talking to a national audience in the lingua franca of baseball before and after each postseason game. He’s probably been more observational than analytic — describing, with bat in hand, how the Mets’ hitting coach, Kevin Long, has rebuilt Daniel Murphy’s power stroke (before his home run skein ended); how making contact with Matt Harvey’s fastball “feels like a bowling ball”; and how Syndergaard’s bench-pressing power has helped him add torque to his slider.
Mike Weisman, a former top baseball producer at NBC and Fox, said that Rodriguez had been very effective in the “protected” studio setting, where comments can be rehearsed and there are “all sorts of expertise around him.”
Rodriguez was, after all, suspended for the 2014 season after an investigation by Major League Baseball of the Biogenesis scandal concluded that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. He denied those accusations. He fulminated. He sued. Then he backed down, ended the spectacle and returned to the Yankees. He made a sort-of admission of his sins and played at an unexpectedly high level (33 home runs, 86 runs batted in), given his time off and his age.
And over the last two weeks, he has performed so well for Fox that it is reasonable to assume that his TV work is an exercise in image rehabilitation.
Here, then, was someone who instinctively understood how to act in a studio; how to easily engage the people he worked with; and how to analyze baseball succinctly.
“At heart,” he said, “I’m a teacher.”
But this is, after all, A-Rod, who has a way of evoking suspicion about his actions. You want him to spill the strategy behind gauging Fox’s interest in him and his assessment that if he excelled at talking knowingly about pitching and hitting, he would be able to extend the era of good feelings he generated by having a surprisingly strong season, performing unusually well and saying nothing that could provoke or upset anyone. That won back some fans and a bit of the heart of Yankee management and, perhaps, offered hope that he might be a productive hitter in the final two years of his contract.
If that was the plan — if there was any television plan at all — he was not saying.
“I’m the wrong guy to talk about image,” he said. He willingly brought up the terrible image choice he made in 2009, when he was asked the other day by Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” what the 40-year-old A-Rod would say to his younger self.
“If you ever do a photo shoot, don’t kiss any mirrors,” he said, referring to the one he did for Details magazine that portrayed him as a narcissist.
Working for Fox was not Rodriguez’s idea. Fox approached him. It was willing to accept his past and move on — a decision like the one the network made when it hired the (still) permanently exiled, bow-tied, white-booted Pete Rose to the show. Rose arrived during the season and has played the cranky coot to A-Rod’s smooth straight man. Fox clearly saw the benefits in hiring stars who were making news this season: Rose’s reinstatement is being considered by Commissioner Rob Manfred, and Rodriguez had a very good season.
“We certainly considered the pros and cons of what Alex has gone through, but at the end of the day it really wasn’t going to be a part of the decision to make him part of the broadcast,” said John Entz, president for production for Fox Sports. “Whatever he did and went through is in the past. We feel we’re trying to make a show that’s informational and entertaining, and we feel that we’ve done that and Alex is a huge part of it.”
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