It ain't over? Why Alex Rodriguez will still be a Yankee after Friday

ByWallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand ESPN logo
Friday, August 12, 2016

NEW YORK -- When the idea of offering Alex Rodriguez a position as a "special adviser" -- meant to soften the blow of giving one of the game's all-time greatest players his outright release -- was floated by New York Yankees assistant GM Jean Afterman, it drew a distinct reaction from her boss.

"I thought it was f---ing crazy,'' Brian Cashman said. "He ain't taking no coaching job.''

Cashman's skepticism was shared by manager Joe Girardi.

"I was somewhat surprised because I know how much he loves to play,'' Girardi said. "[But] if I could see him doing anything that is another passion of his, of sharing the game with young players, that part I'm not surprised.''

It turns out the suggestion of Afterman found a very important pair of receptive ears: those of Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner. He liked the idea, and presented it to A-Rod, who agreed to it privately and at his emotional news conference last Sunday at Yankee Stadium.

And yet, an unanswered question remains: Why?

Why would Alex Rodriguez, the 41-year-old slugger who has hit more home runs than all but three players in baseball history and clearly believes he can hit more, take on the financially unrewarding and time-consuming task of teaching teenagers how to play baseball?

And why would Steinbrenner, no doubt stung by the acrimonious and litigious appeal by A-Rod of his 211-game suspension due to the Biogenesis affair and already loathe to swallow the remainder of an ill-advised 10-year, $275 million contract extension, even want Rodriguez around anymore?

The answers are complex, and in some cases, unknowable. But in extensive interviews with Rodriguez, his teammates, and Yankees front office executives, many of whom spoke to only on condition of anonymity, a picture emerges of a co-dependent relationship between a player and a team the bonds of which are stronger than any lingering resentment on either side. The Yankees need A-Rod, and A-Rod needs the Yankees.

For Steinbrenner, having Rodriguez as a member of the Yankees' family could hearken back to the days when his father, George M. Steinbrenner III, maintained a similarly tempestuous love-hate relationship with Reggie Jackson, a relationship that endures six years after The Boss' death. Jackson and 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui are the only other members of the organization with the "special adviser" title.

And for Rodriguez, a continuing association with the Yankees, the team of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter, once one of A-Rod's closest friends, is a way to keep his legacy as a baseball player alive, long after the debates about his off-the-field transgressions have faded.

Cashman, and to a lesser extent Girardi, apparently misread a couple of facets of Rodriguez's personality and ego: the part that sees himself as a teacher and mentor to young players, and the part that enjoys playing the role of respected elder statesman in the clubhouse.

Many of Rodriguez's teammates are wowed by his career numbers, and the overwhelming majority of them are impressed by his work ethic, even at 41 and with no apparent future as a player with the ball club.

And for many of them, playing with A-Rod was a dream come true, a boyhood idol turned teammate.

"For young kids, everybody watched him, everybody wanted to be like him," said Starlin Castro, who shares A-Rod's Dominican ancestry.

Castro, who became a Yankee this winter after a trade with the Chicago Cubs, recalled his first meeting with A-Rod. "The first time I saw him, I was scared to say hi," said Castro, who crossed paths with his idol at second base while playing shortstop for the Cubs during the Yankees' trip to Wrigley in 2011.

But when Castro joined the Yankees in spring training this February, he found himself sitting at the same table with Rodriguez in the players lounge, and the two struck up a conversation that turned into a friendship. Once he felt comfortable, Castro peppered A-Rod with questions: How do you prepare for the season? How can you be so successful year in and year out? How can you be so good?

"Now, we talk like we have known each other for a long time," Castro said. Now, the two of them hit in the same BP group, go to the weight room at the same time, eat lunch together and hang around in the hotel lobby in a group reduced by one when Carlos Beltran was traded at the deadline.

The bilingual Rodriguez holds a special attraction for the young Latinos on the Yankees' roster; in the past, he has mentored Eduardo Nunez, Jose Pirela and Yangervis Solarte.

More prominently, Girardi credits Rodriguez with helping Robinson Cano reach a higher level as a Yankee. In Girardi's view, Rodriguez's advice -- try not to do too much in pressure situations -- led to Cano's improvement with runners in scoring position.

"I think he is a very good teacher," Girardi said. "I think he relates very well to these guys. He has a lot of experiences to really draw from. He's a first-round pick. He's been a superstar. He's changed positions. He's been in the limelight for a long time, and there have been high expectations for him. There has been controversy. He's had to deal with it all, and through all of it, he has continued to play at a very high level."

Last year, Rodriguez was asked to help Didi Gregorius through a rough adjustment period at shortstop by Joe Espada, the Yankees' third base and infield coach. It was an assignment that Rodriguez, barely a month into his own comeback after a year-long suspension, tackled with enthusiasm.

"I think Alex got Didi over the hump," Espada said.

In his early days as a Yankee, and to some extent now, the athletically talented Gregorius has been troubled by mental mistakes on the field and on the base paths. Aside from advising Gregorius to relax, Espada said Rodriguez schooled the now 26-year-old on being more aware of game situations.

"It helped me a lot," said Gregorius, who has arguably been the Yankees' best position player this season. "You have to play under control. In the beginning I tried to do too much."

Espada said Rodriguez used his encyclopedic knowledge of the American League to help Gregorius position himself for individual hitters. And Espada already uses A-Rod as a de facto assistant coach when it comes to evaluating young players like Rob Refsnyder, who has bounced among three infield positions.

"I ask him, 'Do you see something I'm not seeing?' " Espada said. "And we kind of share ideas."

Rodriguez is qualified for the job, and has enjoyed doing it as part of his duties as a teammate.

And there are members of the Yankees' baseball hierarchy who believe he can be a valuable spring instructor. "He would be less like Reggie and more like Matsui," said a team source who is not a fan of Jackson's skills as a talent evaluator. "Matsui is perfect. He has a great eye and great insights, but he's almost too respectful. He never wants to step on the coaches' toes. I don't think Alex will have that problem."

Yankees insiders believe Rodriguez could really help Jorge Mateo, the organization's top shortstop prospect, and Gleyber Torres, the highly touted prospect acquired in the Aroldis Chapman trade.

A member of the Yankees' front office said Rodriguez would be a benefit, "Even if he just parachutes in for a day or two."

Not everyone in the Yankees' organization is convinced the plan will work as drawn up in Hal Steinbrenner's office.

"It's great if all this goes as planned,'' said one team insider. "But knowing Alex, this won't go smoothly."

Already, there has been controversy this week over Girardi's use, or lack thereof, of Rodriguez in his final four games as a Yankee.

But only one man's opinion truly matters in this affair: that of Steinbrenner.

And though Jeter's 30,000-foot mansion is just a 20-minute drive to the Yankees' Tampa complex, it is A-Rod who the owner thinks is the best person to teach players like Mateo and Torres. There are still lingering resentments between Jeter and the organization from their contentious 2010 contract negotiation, and the former Yankees captain was never much for mentoring younger players. A-Rod, on the other hand, has always relished the role.

"We talked about Tampa in the conversation; we have two of the top five or six overall prospects, both shortstops, by the way, young kids. I can't think of a better guy than Alex to come in here and really spend time with them than Alex," Steinbrenner said on The Michael Kay Show on ESPN New York 98.7 FM.

But what would make one of the greatest players in baseball history, as well as one of the richest, want to do that on a full-time or even semi-full-time basis? Is it gratitude?

"I want to thank the Steinbrenner family for giving me this opportunity, and for making me part of this team," Rodriguez had said at his Yankee Stadium news conference Sunday. "And for giving me an opportunity to stay involved and mentor the next generation of Yankees."

According to friends of A-Rod, it runs deeper than that.

"This is definitely not a ceremonial thing," said a person not affiliated with the Yankees who works with Rodriguez. "Everyone who knows Alex knows he loves the game and he has an eye for talent. Why would he not want to be around? The Yankees have done this for a lot of their great players and he sees it as an honor to be chosen to do it."

A member of the Yankees' staff concurred. "You heard Alex. He said it was embarrassing and painful to sit on the bench. Does he have more value working with kids like Mateo and Torres, or sitting on the bench and getting four at-bats a week? So why wouldn't he take it? Doesn't it benefit him? Isn't there some value to being wanted at some level by the organization?"

Girardi is already brainstorming ways to use Rodriguez's expertise. "Believe me, I could give Alex projects," the manager said.

All this could lead to A-Rod's real long-term goal: to be immortalized in Yankees history.

People close to Rodriguez believe he would like to have his Yankees No. 13 retired and to have a plaque in Monument Park, which unlike the Hall of Fame has no real entrance exam other than a player's importance to the history of the franchise.

Currently, the largest monument at Yankee Stadium belongs to George Steinbrenner, a convicted felon (later pardoned) who was twice suspended from baseball. Andy Pettitte, who admitted to HGH use, has a plaque. Who's to say there's no room for Alex Rodriguez out there?

Hal Steinbrenner pointedly did not rule out that possibility. And A-Rod has not given up on his hope that someday, perhaps a more permissive crop of Hall of Fame voters will choose to overlook his two admissions of PED use and enshrine him on the basis of his numbers.

Several times in the past month, Rodriguez has asked friends and media members if they thought David Ortiz would get into the Hall of Fame. The implication seemed to be that if Ortiz got in -- despite having tested positive for steroids during baseball's survey testing in 2003, according to the New York Times -- there was hope for him, too.

And a continuing connection to the Yankees further rehabilitates his image and could help build a case for a ceremony both in the Bronx and in Cooperstown. It could possibly lead to another of his aspirations: to one day own a team.

Most former players with his history of transgressions against the game would have little chance at any of those things, though the image rehabilitation of Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds says it is hardly impossible.

And Rodriguez has already taken major steps toward being welcomed fully back into the MLB family by burying his differences with commissioner Rob Manfred, who prosecuted the Biogenesis case against Rodriguez while a vice president under Bud Selig.

Last month, Rodriguez appeared with Manfred and representatives of the MLBPA -- an organization he sued in his flurry of litigation during the Biogenesis mess -- to make a $750,000 donation to help build a youth baseball academy in the Bronx.

Manfred declined an interview request for this story but issued the following statement: "I tried to treat Alex the same way that we treat all suspended players. Once the suspension is over, we try and make the player's return to the game as smooth and successful as possible. Alex's attitude, actions and performance helped make his return a positive one."

There is always the possibility that another team will call Rodriguez on Saturday morning, seeking to capitalize on his star power and ability to still hit a baseball out of the ballpark. If so, it might be hard for him to resist, putting the entire advisory position on hold.

"I do not believe Hal would pull it off the table if he signed to play for another team," a Yankees official said. "Hal's a good guy. He's a good person. I don't think it ever got bad between Alex and Hal. Hal tried to remain above all that other stuff."

But what's in it for Hal Steinbrenner?

The owner is already forced by the CBA to pay Rodriguez every dollar of the approximately $26.5 million he is owed on a contract he did not even negotiate -- by most accounts, it was the brainchild of his brother Hank with the approval of team president Randy Levine -- so why should he keep A-Rod in the organization and pay him an additional sum?

Yankees sources say Rodriguez will be paid for his advisory position, as are Jackson and Matsui. And while they will not disclose the amount, it is believed to be a nominal sum.

The question is, why bother? In addition to Jackson and Matsui, don't the Yankees have enough former players flitting in and out of spring training as "guest instructors," guys like David Wells and Goose Gossage, and since his retirement, Pettitte?

"Call it a send-off, off the field, but he is going to be around, he is going to be intimately involved sooner rather than later in shaping the careers of a lot of these young players we are going to be counting on," Steinbrenner said on The Michael Kay Show. "He's been great the last two years. He has done everything we could've expected from him. The job he has done with guys like Didi and Castro has been marvelous."

But there's another piece to the puzzle. In many ways, Hal Steinbrenner has tried to distance himself from The Boss, that legendarily mercurial character who ran the Yankees like a dictator for nearly 40 years.

But in other ways, Hal is not unlike George. He is more pragmatic and level-headed than his dad, but he is also competitive. He wants to win, and he seems to enjoy associating himself with players who can help him do that.

For 12 years, Alex Rodriguez was one of those players for Hal Steinbrenner, as Reggie was for George in a previous era.

Even though George traded Reggie in 1982, and the two had a period of estrangement, eventually The Boss brought Reggie back as a permanent symbol of a great Yankees team.

Maybe Hal is trying to do the same thing with A-Rod, and the real question isn't why are Hal and Alex staying together, but why did anyone think they could be apart?

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