Few moments better illustrate the lingering vitriol for former teenage prodigy and recovering Bronx scapegoat Alex Rodriguez than during September’s Wild Card Series, when, as an ESPN broadcaster, he called multiple times for the scoreless Braves and Reds to lay down bunts, prompting Twitter cries of hypocrisy and suggestions A-Rod should promptly just shut the fuck up forever.
The A-Rod hate has a well-tread history. See: his $252 million contract—at the time, the largest in the history of organized sports—of which he opted out, forcing the Rangers to pay the Yankees $67 million just to get rid of him. Bush league moves like the infamous Slap, where he karate-chopped the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove. That photoshoot where he kisses himself in the mirror. Oh, and, finally: the fact that he took steroids and then, when accused, lied about it for 21 months. That too.
But here’s the thing: all this drama actually made baseball great. The A-Rod irony is that for all the enmity he took, he made the game fun to watch. And since he left, he’s done something else, something the MLB has been unable to pull off. Even without the drama of early-aughts baseball, A-Rod has stayed relevant. If you left the game in the bottom of 2013, you probably missed the comeback: Rodriguez becoming an underdog, then a winner again, then a fixture on MLB on FOX (total success) and ESPN’s Sunday night broadcast (mixed success). He’s also since been putting up hall of fame social media numbers compared to other ball players. If there’s a figure in baseball who can enliven the World Series (maybe already half over!) between two historically undramatic teams, the Dodgers and the Rays, and make us love baseball again, it’s this man who hasn’t just stuck around all these years, but, somehow, gotten even bigger.
And, if my fanhood is any indication of America’s, Lord knows we need someone to enliven baseball.
Maybe unlike most, I didn’t need Instagram A-Rod. (When I was a kid, even when many thought he was an asshole, I thought he was a goddamn hero.) But my relationship with the game went the way of many. I stopped playing in college (no scholarship). Games were no longer interesting. There were years where I didn’t even know who won the World Series. I wasn’t alone. Thanks to others like me, MLB ratings have been plummeting for years. Quarantined and starved of sports, I thought maybe this year—with a shorter season and a top villain (the Astros)—this year would be the year I finally get back together with the game.
The 2020 season certainly had that potential. Fauci’s first pitch. Colorado bleachers populated by its South Park fanbase. Giant teddy bears taking murderous foul balls to the dome. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs. A perfect game jinx in the seventh. And, best of all, Astros players stirring up all kinds of shit, including Joe Kelly’s I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I face and the A’s Ramon Laureano charging the entire Houston dugout—by himself—after pitcher Humberto Castellanos said something dirty about his mother in Spanish. If there was ever a year to get back into baseball, it was this one. But be honest with yourself: How many games did you watch? I watched one. And there were only 60.
Which now brings us back to A-Rod. Why, you ask? For the love of God, why must we unmute A-Rod? Isn’t he trying to buy the Mets? Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
Who cares! Because, like it or not, A-Rod is still one of baseball’s biggest ambassadors. Plus, few love the game more than he does. Just look at his face when he talks baseball. And thanks to J-Lo and some A+ Instagram husband moments and loads of unironic sponsorships (most recently, A-Rod making chicharron de pollo—like a regular guy!), A-Rod now has twice as many social media followers as any active player in the MLB. Face it: One of the game’s biggest stars isn’t even on the field. And that’s a problem he’s well aware of.
So whatever our relationship issues, whatever the emptiness we feel at the center of who we were, right now, before next season, A-Rod just might be the only chance our hearts have.
ESQUIRE: I have a confession. I feel like I was in a long-term relationship with baseball, and then went through a messy breakup after I stopped playing. I don’t have that same joy watching baseball anymore. How do I get the spark back in my relationship?
Alex Rodriguez: I think one of the things that works well is when you have people like us who people either watched or trust or believe in. And when we’re talking about the next generation, I think it’s kind of a nice one-two punch. I grew up watching Cal Ripken. If Cal Ripken told me that [someone] is the next kid I have to watch, then I’m going to believe that, because I grew up watching Cal Ripken. I think that kind of generation passing the baton works really well.
But I think the game is going through a transition for sure, right? And it happened. Exactly what happened to you happened to me with football and Dan Marino. When he retired, I didn’t watch football that much. I totally can relate.
But there’s a lot of young and exciting players. And I think as Major League Baseball takes a few notes from the NBA and the NFL [it will start thinking about] how it’s an entertainment. It’s not [just] sports. And people like George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones understood that back in the day.
ESQ: The MLB also seems to lack some of the personalities you find in the NBA off the court—things that bring fans into the game. Why is it baseball doesn’t have that anymore? Why aren’t fans as obsessed with [Justin] Verlander and [Kate] Upton like they were with [Derek] Jeter and Mariah Carrey? Or Boston fans razzing you about Madonna? I guess what I’m trying to ask is: At what point does Mike Trout need to start dating a Kardashian?
AR: There’s so many other things that you want to promote versus you know, who you’re dating. The game could stand on its own. I think that for so many years, the game has been married to our legacy and or history. And sometimes that’s the gift and the curse. But I think what I like about what we’re doing today is that we’re starting to promote the young players. But it’s our responsibility to tell stories. Who they are. What they like. Take their helmets off, you know. Reveal who these great personalities are. And we’re seeing this. You see a kid like [Ronald] Acuña, I mean, he looks like a rock/rap star, right? He’s got the hair. He’s got the chain. He’s got the swagger. He’s hitting balls 450 feet. He’s a good-looking kid. He’s smart. He speaks multiple languages. I mean, there’s a lot to like there. And there’s a lot to unpack. Look, every sport, every entertainment, every show needs STARS. And we need to build our stars.
ESQ: I think, for many of us, baseball also used to feel like an Event. Red Sox and Yankees series felt like a real rivalry. It had personalities and headlines and drama. Somehow baseball lost that excitement. Maybe because that rivalry died, I don’t know. As someone who played in that era, what was that transition you said you felt?
I think back then there were things getting really data driven. Computer science running the game, and less personality. I think there’s a good blend that needs to happen. Even back before I played, I could name the mid 70s Dodgers infield. I could say the Yankees infield from back in the 70s and 80s. And it was a staple. It would be like that for decades plus. And now if you spend one year with a team, that’s a long time. So that’s also challenging for players and fans, like yourself and like myself.
ESQ: So it was that turnover rate you saw increasing as you played?
AR: Oh yeah, without a question.
ESQ: Do you think this past season has been good for baseball or not so great for baseball?
AR: Great! It’s been great. It’s been so good. I think the sprint versus marathon—60 games versus 162—has been a blessing in disguise. I think more people are watching baseball today than ever before, because in a blink it’s over, right? I mean, the one thing we get knocked for is “it’s too long.” Well now it’s like a college baseball season: 60 games. And the post season is actually prolonged, which has actually been nice. And you have this March Madness field where like, “Oh, my God, anybody can win.”
ESQ: So you would keep the sprint going then [in 2021]. Are there other changes to the game that you can see yourself getting behind? 7 innings, for instance?
AR: That was great. Whether you want to mix that in two or three days a week. I really like the man on second for extra innings. Anything that’s going to mix things up, right? I think pushing the envelope and being uncomfortable with the changes, I think in the long run will pay off.
ESQ: You don’t hear the purists in your ear saying, “That is ruining the game, this isn’t baseball!”?
AR: I think you can always go back in the postseason like what they’ve done—where they played it more straight up. I think there’s interesting things about eliminating some of the shifts. NBA did that. They went to man-to-man and they’ve come back a little bit of a hybrid. But I think keeping two infielders on one side of second base, two infielders on this side, and open up offense a little bit more. I think in the NBA, if you had four people covering Michael Jordan, it probably wouldn’t have been as fun for the fans to watch. We like the dunking. We like the excitement. Same is true with baseball.
ESQ: You’ve talked a little bit about how you might implement strategies from E-Sports. Do you think there’s any lesson the American system can kind of take from other systems around the world? Japanese baseball. Korean baseball.
AR: I think we just have to continue to evolve. Talking more about what players like to do off field—what’s their favorite breakfast, what’s their favorite music, where’d they go to college—all those things are so much more interesting than OBS or on base percentage or runs batted in. I always think about it through the prism of my daughters—what’s exciting to them. It’s going to be music and “what’s your favorite movie?” and “where did they go to college” and all those things.
ESQ: Who do they say their favorite [MLB] players are now?
AR: [Smiling] They don’t watch baseball.
ESQ: What? How does that make you feel?
AR: They don’t watch much sports actually! They enjoy the Super Bowl, but they have their own passions.
ESQ: You’re not worried their inclinations might reflect what younger audiences want?
AR: Well, I think they just have different passions. I don't think for them, specifically, it's not [like there's something wrong with] this era, per se. It’s just their passion is in other things. Which is cool.
ESQ: Okay, so if baseball is my first love and I'm falling out, what can I do for baseball? What can I do as a fan to clean myself up and get her back?
AR: Honestly, watch our postgame tonight after, and you'll have some fun! I think you want somebody to feed you easily digestible information that’s fun and entertaining. And I think that’s what we try to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You Might Also Like