In November 2014, news broke that Alex Rodriguez had admitted to the Drug Enforcement Agency that he had used performance-enhancing drugs prescribed to him at Biogenesis of America, the infamous Miami clinic run by Anthony Bosch.
This directly contradicted the New York Yankees third baseman's long-held public assertion that he had never taken anything illegal from the clinic, despite Major League Baseball compiling enough evidence to suspend him for 211 regular-season games, including the entirety of the 2014 season. The lie about Biogenesis wasn't his first about doping—in 2009, he also admitted to using PEDs but insisted he had stopped in 2003. A-Rod's credibility was so shot that when ESPN The Magazine published a 12,000-word feature story on Rodriguez in its March 2015 issue, it did not contain a single quote from him, because no one would believe a word he said. Factor in his long-standing reputation as a difficult personality, and Rodriguez entered the 2015 season as baseball's greatest pariah. He was almost universally despised.
Today, A-Rod leaves the game of baseball, if not universally loved then at least begrudgingly respected. He announced his retirement on Sunday, at the age of 41, and did so with the blessing of (and maybe a little prodding from) the Yankees organization, which granted him a dignified press conference on Sunday and a cushy landing by virtue of a hybrid coaching-special advisor position. Earlier this week, as the Yankees played the Red Sox, the entirety of Fenway Park chanted "WE WANT A-ROD"—a mind-blowing gesture from the city that is the epicenter of Rodriguez hatred.
New York manager Joe Girardi has defiantly chained Rodriguez to the bench ahead of his final game on Friday and stonewalled the outgoing star's request to play third base one final time. Two years ago, Girardi might have been praised for not indulging one of the game's most famously vain figures any more than was expressly needed. Now he comes off like a petulant asshole, and Rodriguez the sympathetic victim.
Salvaging a reputation this dramatically in a year and a half is nothing short of a public relations miracle. That raises the questions of how Rodriguez did it, and whether his transformation can serve as blueprint for other athletes with crises of reputation. It turns out that, like the man himself, the answer is complicated.
The first thing to note is that while some athletes' reputations are irreparable from a PR standpoint, Rodriguez was hardly damaged beyond fixing. "It's not like he committed a capital crime here, let's be very clear about that," says Shawn McBride, Executive Vice President of Sports at the public relations firm Ketchum. For all that Rodriguez has done, he has always been leagues removed from the likes of Ray Rice or Greg Hardy, who committed violent crimes with human victims. Rodriguez's transgressions amount to attacking the sanctity of baseball, a sport that has committed plenty of self-sabotage in its own right.
But according to McBride, the path to remedying any sort of transgression begins at the same place.
"It's the honesty and the accountability," he says. "It's taking ownership of it, being forthright, being open about what transpired.... I think there needs to be demonstrated actions of contrition, whether they made some kind of grand gesture like some athletes have done—donations, involvement in cause-related and philanthropic activities, or things along those lines immediately come to mind."
"It's paramount," agrees Matt Kovacs, President of Blaze PR. "You look at any other athletes who have had these things pop up and trying to be authentic, trying to connect that way."
Alex Rodriguez has not done these things. He has actually failed spectacularly at doing these things. His apologies themselves carry no weight and there has been no redemptive philanthropic gesture on par with, say, Michael Vick's ongoing work with Humane Society following his prison stint for running a dogfighting ring. Then again, to what charity do you make out a check when you're trying to repent for doping? Rodriguez's compromise with the Yankees over some disputed home-run bonus money resulted in $3.5 million going to charities, but the most meaningful part of the 2015 A-Rod apology tour was probably his hitting 33 home runs that season, more than any other Yankee that year.
Even Rodriguez's acclaimed run as a postseason baseball analyst with FOX Sports—during which he was affable, intelligent, and downright likeable—has not taken him to a place where he can be viewed as authentic, per se.
"I think he fell flat," McBride says. "Is it really rebuilding your image if you're doing what you were supposed to be all along? When he commits to, 'I'm going to play the game the right way. I'm going to be a good teammate. I'm going to stay clean.' Well, you should have been doing those things all along. That's not the grand gesture. That's not the commitment to frankly making amends beyond acknowledging the behaviors you should have been abiding to all along.
"He may be a legend, but highly debatable if he's a hero."
Yet in spite of that, McBride, like everyone else, notices how dramatically Rodriguez has reversed the negative attention against him. After all, while contemporaries like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire are again welcome presences in the game, their ties to PEDs precipitated years of exile. They each waited more than half a decade for a coaching opportunity like the one Rodriguez will walk into as soon as he puts down his bat.
Kovacs, for his part, believes that the true answer might not be a formula so much as a perfect confluence of circumstances.
"I think some of it is baseball," he says. "I think you look at the actual sport and it romanticizes its players. I think you have the tradition [of the retirement sendoff], Cal Ripken and obviously [Derek] Jeter last year. I think it's just part of that dynamic and especially being in New York and able to have that type of opportunity for it to be turned around. Because in other cities it would be forgotten or in other sports it doesn't hold water.
"Even with what's going on in the broader American picture of the election—I think it's in a place that's a crossroads of everything going on and it gives people a chance to just step back and [say], 'Let's focus on this while the rest of the chaos is going on in the outside world around us.'"
Because Rodriguez's next arc begins so soon after his playing career ends, he has an uncommon opportunity to keep stacking good will onto the momentum he's already built. Baseball itself may be the best forum possible for him to slowly reconstruct his authenticity: for all the many things he has lied about, nobody has ever questioned the purity of Alex Rodriguez's love for the game. Reshaping himself into a full-fledged ambassador could finally tilt the needle of public approval toward loving him once and for all.
"I would advise him to embrace this new role with the Yankees," McBride says. "Figure out the balance between on-field and community-related activities to be a part of this role. Get out and give back to the game. Be an advocate and be a positive presence on behalf of the organization and on behalf of himself, most importantly."
Considering the subject, that advice probably works best as suggestion rather than a set of hard and fast rules. Alex Rodriguez rendered himself totally radioactive, broke the cardinal rule of image reconstruction, and will nevertheless retire to a standing ovation. There has never been a baseball figure quite like him. There may never be another one who resurrects himself in quite the same way, either.
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