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Alex Rodriguez: The inside story of his unprecedented transformation

Go ahead. Name someone who has turned around their public image as quickly and as gracefully as Alex Rodriguez.

Do it. Name someone who went from — in just four short years — being public enemy No. 1 in his sport to being one of his sports’ premier analysts.

Name someone who vanished his “dark days” and is now winning Emmys, hanging with influencers from the technology and entertainment worlds, then calling games for ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” on the weekends.

Go ahead and try. But it can’t be done.

In baseball, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are still working toward something close to what A-Rod has achieved — and they had a decade’s head start. Mark McGwire is back in baseball, but he’s the bench coach for the Padres. He’s not grinning on red carpets like A-Rod.

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There’s no one in baseball who has changed their story the way Rodriguez has. And there’s probably not anyone in sports who has done it like this. This fast. This massive. This impressively. Because even if you’re not sold on A-Rod 2.0, you have to admit the transformation is impressive.

It’s one thing to find redemption because of your skills on the field or on the court — like some would say LeBron James or Kobe Bryant did. It’s another thing to vault back from being written off the way A-Rod was.

Alex Rodriguez, now a “Sunday Night Baseball” analyst for ESPN, has turned around his public image. (ESPN)

The closest thing outside of sports? It’s probably Robert Downey Jr., whose turnaround time from rehab and TV exile to donning the “Iron Man” armor and becoming a Halloween costume was eight years. A-Rod did it in four years. Does that make him some sort of image-makeover superhero?

Consider that in 2014, this was A-Rod’s life:

He was serving a one-year suspension from MLB for performance-enhancing drug use.
• He was a few months removed from suing the Yankees’ team doctor and the league.
• He was even fighting with his own players’ union and facing possible expulsion.

Now consider that these things happened to him in the span of a week earlier this month:

• He won a second Sports Emmy for his work on Fox Sports.
• He turned heads at the Met Gala with girlfriend Jennifer Lopez.
• He was on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon.
• He spoke at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival, with a number of high-powered CEOs.

“It’s night and day,” said Ari Fleischer, a communications expert who works with pro athletes and knows a thing or two about public perception from his days as the White House press secretary. “It’s a player who descended into baseball hell and has actually picked himself up out of it and is now soaring.

“What’s so fascinating is live TV allows people to see things and judge things for themselves,” Fleischer told Yahoo Sports. “You either sink or swim in that environment. A-Rod is swimming — gracefully.”

How did this all happen? Well, as A-Rod tells it, his suspension from MLB changed everything. For the better. Once he looked within himself, he knew what he had to do. Stop fighting and change the person he was.

“It’s much easier to rehab the house than tear the whole thing down,” Rodriguez told Yahoo Sports recently. “But I realized I had to tear the whole thing down and start one brick at a time. It really had everything to do with the person off the field. It had nothing to do with the ballplayer.”

The paradigm shift

When ESPN announced in January that Rodriguez would be joining “Sunday Night Baseball,” the message was quite clear: A-Rod was officially back. The idea that ESPN deemed Alex Rodriguez worthy of its flagship baseball broadcast meant the A-Rod redemption tour had reached new heights.

Not everyone loves A-Rod today. Heck, part of the job description of being a national sports analyst is being hated, if for no other reason than fans are used to their homer-leaning local analysts. But enough people love A-Rod again that he’s currently working in some rare air.

Remember, ESPN hired A-Rod when he was already working for Fox Sports. The two networks worked out an unprecedented deal to share A-Rod’s services — he does Sunday night games for ESPN and does studio and postseason work for Fox.

Yes, the guy who was in baseball exile not too long ago has enough juice to split time between two of sports broadcasting’s biggest competitors. Save the Emmys and Instagram likes. That might be the most impressive about A-Rod’s turnaround.

The key, he’ll tell you, was the suspension. Once he dropped his appeal and accepted his punishment, A-Rod says it put things into a new perspective. His year away allowed for a “paradigm shift.”

“It gave me an opportunity press the pause button and re-evaluate,” A-Rod told Yahoo Sports. “I had a full year to dig deep and turn the lens inward and figure out that there are some things that I had to change. I knew that when I came back, I wanted to be a different person, a different teammate.”

While baseball was on his mind at that time, so were other things. He took marketing classes at the University of Miami. He’d always had a thirst for business, but being the No. 1 MLB draft choice out of high school hadn’t afforded him the chance to go to college.

Put yourself in his shoes for a second: Here’s a 38-year-old whose life had been centered around the most routine-oriented sport there is. Baseball is a game that consumes the life of its players for eight months per year, nine if they’re lucky — and it had consumed A-Rod since he was a teenager.

All of a sudden, he had a year without that routine. He didn’t have a clubhouse to go to every day. Or the other 24 guys on the team to talk to. Things get quiet quick in those times, but A-Rod found new outlets.

He talked to Robert Kraft, the billionaire businessman and New England Patriots owner, who told him to “stop burning bridges and start building bridges.” He thought about his mom, whose resilience as a single mother trying to make ends meet was something he always admired. If she never gave up on trying to better her life, he wouldn’t either.

“What I realized was, when I invested into that and turned the lens inward,” Rodriguez said. “I was able to come back a different type of person with different appreciations and values.”

On the baseball side of things, he came back to the Yankees in 2015 and hit 33 homers — despite pushing 40 with two hip and knee surgeries. It was more than anybody expected. And it ended up being the last hurrah. He retired unexpectedly midway through the 2016 season, when the Yankees were eager to start their youth movement and he was barely hitting .200.

Since retirement came quicker than he expected, his post-baseball plans weren’t too solid. Like many retirees, he knew he was going to spend time at home.

“To be honest I didn’t think I was going to have many options,” Rodriguez said. “I was at least mentally getting myself ready to be in the office and just be Dad and be a local in Miami and spend as much time as I can with my girls.”

A-Rod in the ESPN booth with Jessica Mendoza and Matt Vasgersian. (AP)

Then the rest of the world came calling — business opportunities, broadcast jobs.

People close to A-Rod will tell you work ethic and preparation are hugely important to him. Especially now that he’s in broadcasting. He’s always taking notes and thinking before he offers an opinion.

He approaches TV as he approaches sports: he wants to practice, get his reps and evaluate his performance. He’s the type that would rather do more research than shoot off an ill-informed opinion. Some star athletes go into broadcasting and can get by without the prep. A-Rod could probably be one of them, but he chooses not to be.

Jessica Yellin, a journalist and ex-CNN correspondent, is one of the friends that Rodriguez turned to for advice when he got serious about broadcasting.

“He seems so much more comfortable being on the other side of the camera,” Yellin said. “When he’s a commentator on TV, he can share his knowledge about baseball and that’s really who he is and what he loves.”

“One of the things he talks about: He’s made mistakes and he’s showing you can come back from them. He wants that to be true and wants to model it. It shows that you don’t have to be limited by your worst moment.”

Why A-Rod has succeeded where others haven’t 

It’s often been said that Americans will give you a second chance if you prove that you deserve it. Baseball, on the other hand, isn’t always as forgiving. Especially when it comes to its most infamous players.

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa — their second chances have come and gone without nearly as much success as A-Rod. If they’ve come at all. Consider that a testament to just what A-Rod has been able to pull off.

“The difference here is those guys are essentially hiding,” said Fleischer, who worked with McGwire when he fessed up about PED use. “They won’t get defined or known for something different. So your last memory of them is great home run hitters, but they cheated, or great pitcher, but everybody thinks he cheated. With A-Rod, he gave people a reason to look at him fresh.

“There was risk going on the air,” Fleischer said. “He could have bombed and that would have reminded everybody of his problems. This wasn’t a given. He had to go out, work for it and earn it — and he did.”

Social media helped too. These days, A-Rod is as active on Instagram as a young Hollywood star. He takes his followers behind the scenes of his life — not just when he’s broadcasting baseball games, but when he’s with his daughters or active in his business or traveling with J-Lo.

It allows people to see a different side of Rodriguez, a more human side they didn’t see when he was playing baseball and was more likely to end up on the back page of the NYC tabloids than on your social-media follow list. Dating another of the most famous people in the world doesn’t hurt either.

“He’s done a great job turning around his image. I’m not sure I can chalk it up to just one thing, but Alex himself has said a big key to his turnaround is admitting his mistakes and holding himself accountable,” said Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president, production. “What I’ve observed in working with Alex is that he works extremely hard, he deeply cares about the game of baseball and influencing kids in a positive way.”

If you were a baseball fan who fell into a coma in 2014 and woke up right now, you might think you ended up in a different timeline. One where A-Rod’s public demise never happened, where he just moved into his next chapter, as beloved as ever. But we all know that’s not what happened.

Instead, A-Rod had to change the entire conversation about himself. And he still has to — with each “Sunday Night Baseball” game, each Instagram post, each “Shark Tank” appearance, each high-powered business event he attends.

“I don’t think people forget my mistakes, I think they understand,” Rodriguez said. “People are willing to give you a second opportunity and I’m grateful for that. I certainly don’t forget how dark my days were in 2014. Anytime I get up and I can work for ESPN and work for Fox and be involved with the Yankees and be part of the baseball community, I’m so thankful.

“I feel like I’m truly one of the luckiest people on earth.”

– – – – – –

Mike Oz is a writer at Yahoo Sports. Contact him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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