How A-Rod rebuilt public image from villain to in-demand analyst

Alex Rodriguez will join the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast crew this season. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Alex Rodriguez sat by himself on the cushioned bench in the visitors’ dugout at Rogers Centre. He was chewing an enormous wad of gum and staring into the distance while his New York Yankees teammates readied themselves to take the field for pre-game stretch.

About half a dozen cameramen stood off to the right of Rodriguez, snapping his photo as the fans who flanked the dugout jeered.

A few minutes earlier, gregarious Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter had been surrounded by several teammates at his locker in the clubhouse, chirping them about their musical tastes. He lobbied bullpen coach Mike Harkey to play Candy Girl and not long after, the New Edition song was blaring through the room’s speakers.

I was covering the Yankees for MLB.com during that July 2008 series against the Toronto Blue Jays and those scenes have been stitched to my memory ever since. It was a perfect microcosm of a dominant storyline from that era: Jeter was beloved, while Rodriguez was a villain — to fans, media and even some teammates.

Those public perceptions continued to trend in their respective directions until near the end of Jeter and Rodriguez’s playing days. That’s why, as Jeff Blair wrote late last year, it’s such a mind bender to see where both men stand today.

Jeter has suffered perhaps the harshest public criticism of his baseball career for his dealings as CEO of the Miami Marlins. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has continued to build on a strong, affable, public image that has in part led to this week’s announcement that he’s joining the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast crew.

It’s one of the premier gigs in the industry, made an even more impressive get for Rodriguez given that he’s just a few years removed from his broadcasting debut. He began working as an analyst for Fox during the 2015 post-season, while he was still a player, and since retirement has gained much acclaim for his ability to convey to audiences his savant-like knowledge of the sport.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says David Soberman, a marketing professor at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “He’s very likeable when you see him on screen.”

Soberman believes Rodriguez’s turnaround is one of the better role reversals in recent sports history and says his public admittance of steroid use played a large role. Initially, Rodriguez vehemently denied connections to performance-enhancing drugs, but he progressed to the point where he’s now self-deprecating.

“How stupid can you be? … This thing cost me over $40 million. And it cost me my reputation, and it may have cost me the Hall of Fame and a number of other things,” Rodriguez told Joe Buck last year. “I’m the only jackass that has pocket aces and figures out a way to lose the hand.”

“He’s been rather contrite with admitting it and coming clean,” says Soberman. “I know that at first he didn’t, but there’s a lot of players who I think are still highly suspected of having [used PEDs] and they sort of act like they still didn’t do it. Roger Clemens comes to mind, or Lance Armstrong. These are people who obviously did it too, but they’ve just been a lot less open in saying, ‘I’ve made some real mistakes and I’m going to try to learn from it.’

“That’s a really good policy,” he adds. “A lot of people find it really hard to do mea culpa and admit that they’re wrong.”

The professor has watched Rodriguez from afar and admires the strides he’s made with his on-camera presence over the years, whether as a player or broadcaster. The three-time MVP is one of the best hitters ever and is said to devote as much preparation to his on-screen duties as he did to his playing career.

It’s worth noting that Rodriguez already had a head start, notes Soberman, in that he’s good-looking, somewhat funny and exudes a healthy dose of charisma. These are all strong ingredients to aid in the rehabilitation of a broken public image.

And of course, when discussing Rodriguez, it’s hard to escape his colossal celebrity — he has dated A-list stars and is currently in a relationship with Jennifer Lopez. Soberman declares that connection to the mega pop star has drastically helped Rodriguez gain acceptance in the public eye.

“She’s got a positive image,” says Soberman. “People will use the associations that someone has to make inferences about the person’s character. Jennifer Lopez has a pretty good reputation and she’s raising two children while still continuing her career. A lot of people are impressed by that.

“If she chooses to spend a lot of time with A-Rod, then he’s probably a pretty good guy.”

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