In February, the steroid allegations came out. Shortly after, there was the news conference and the ESPN interview. His focus was kept further away from the field when doctors found a cyst in his hip before finding a torn hip labrum.
Surgery, rehab and a million tabloid headlines later, A-Rod returned and, fittingly, homered in his first at-bat — on the first pitch, no less.
From that very moment, A-Rod looked a little different. The character who had perpetually been considered an enigma, who had always seemed to consider himself something different than "one of the guys," looked comfortable. For A-Rod, that probably meant mental health. For the Yankees, it meant they had the best team in baseball.
And so as Rodriguez celebrated his first championship, the number he wanted to discuss most wasn't one — it was 27.
"I'm just enjoying the moment," he told The New York Times. "For me the one thing I can remember is, I know a lot of people were running the other way, and rightfully so in spring training. But I have 25 guys and my coaches and the organization, the Steinbrenner family that stood literally right next to me. And that meant the world to me. It just feels good collectively to be sitting here today as world champs."
A-Rod was likely being genuine, yet there's no way he wasn't feeling pure ecstasy for getting the championship monkey off his back. The fact was, Rodriguez had performed fairly well in the playoffs in his career, yet in the most memorable moments, he hadn't come through. He became the face of Yankee failure this decade. Big money, big celebrity, but no big memories.
When he tore through the Twins in the ALDS (.455 BA, 2 HR, 6 RBI) and the Angels in the ALCS (.429 BA, .567 OBP, 3 HR, 6 RBI), he looked like a man possessed. He wouldn't say it, but his look said it all: He was determined to shed the tag as an annual choke artist.
But then the World Series began, and the production slowed. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Game 1, following it up with another 0-for-4, three-strikeout night in Game 2. Here he was on the game's biggest stage, and his demons appeared to be back.
Yankee fans grew impatient with just about everything during the six-game series. Joe Girardi's managing, A.J. Burnett's pitching and Mark Teixeira's own struggles — combined with A-Rod's sudden slide — had Yankee fans in the Bronx and beyond losing patience.
A-Rod recovered to bat .417 in the next four games, driving in six more runs, none larger than the three that came with his Game 3 home run in Philadelphia. He wasn't the superstar, he wasn't flashy, and he wasn't the MVP, but given the way his season had gone from the start, it couldn't have been more perfect. He fit in with the team ,and he played his role the best he could, and that change in mentality likely made the difference.
So as he lifted the World Series trophy on Wednesday night, he dropped all that has weighed on him for years. One of the most polarizing figures in sports, Rodriguez will never be universally liked, or even respected. Those who want to label him as nothing more than a steroid user will always do so, and those who only want to remember him for his postseason faults will forget the events of the past four weeks. He'll no doubt be handed his praise, but winning a championship only ensures that more criticism and hate will continue to stream in his direction.
Yet for the very first time, it seems like A-Rod doesn't care.
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