God in Pinstripes:

An interview with A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez pauses. You are sat in the billiard room of his apartment building on Park Avenue, an unknown amount of storeys up, and the searing light of the day is crashing through the windows from the glass of the buildings opposite. Directly onto him.

He fills a tanned leather armchair like nobody you have ever seen. When he shakes your hand he encloses it. He makes it vanish. And he sits, before you, ruminating on something, the hundred kilowatt smile subdued for the moment. He had flashed it at you like a shark but he looks angry. Also like a shark, I guess. One that's been asked a question he doesn't necessarily know the answer to, for all his eloquence, and polish, and charm, and teeth.

He pauses for an age. His hands are clasped together under his chin and he is tilting his head up at the ceiling.

What's it like to be a Yankee? What's it like to play for the team with the most trophies across all four major American sports leagues? Over there, you'd call the Yankees the winningest sports franchise in the world. Over here you'd call that the fucking stupidest term in the world, but hey. You've seen those two overlaid letters, the N and the Y, since you were a kid and you know them, you know what they represent and what they mean, that they're the biggest and the best and the most important thing there is in the same way you know the Empire State and the Chrysler Building and the rest of the skyline, you have seen it in comic books and on TV and in movies, and you know what they mean even before you catch that first glimpse of them in the distance, miles away, with your neck contorted in the backseat of a reckless, honking, canary taxi cab coming out of JFK airport.

You are conscious you are looking at his thighs a bit too much. They are the biggest things you have seen. They look like someone has cling-filmed two tree-trunks together. Twice.

You look back up and he is smiling again.

To the left of centre you'll notice the Empire State Building. The taller building to the right is 432 Park Avenue, the location of Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez's penthouse apartment. And our interview.

To the left of centre you'll notice the Empire State Building. That long, thin rectangle to the right is 432 Park Avenue, the location of Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez's penthouse apartment.

The reason the question was difficult for A-Rod, a shortstop and third baseman who played 22 seasons in the MLB, who won the World Series with the Yankees in 2009 and hit almost 700 home runs, is that he grew up as a Mets fan - New York's other baseball franchise.

In 2000, when he hit free agency for the first time, he signed the then most lucrative contract in sports history: $252 million over 10 years with the worst team in the league the previous season, the Texas Rangers. Cristiano Ronaldo signing for a Qatari-backed Huddersfield Town.

Eight years later he would appear on ESPN's Sunday Night baseball broadcast and admit that he regrets not signing for less money with the Mets instead.

His time at the Rangers was one of individual accolades, including two Gold Gloves (awarded to the best defensive player in each position) and an American League MVP (for being the best player in the West). The Rangers, however, remained last in the AL Western division in all of his three seasons at the club and set about shedding his astronomical contract from the wage bill. You know that simile about throwing a deck chair from the top deck of the Titanic to lose the weight? This was like jumping off the Titanic to sail away on the deck chair instead.

He was traded to the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees' historic rivals but that was vetoed by the MLB's Players Association because the trade involved Rodriguez taking a voluntary pay cut.

In the end, he had to sacrifice far more than just money, far more than that, and ended up changing a position he had played his entire life and the shirt number he had worn his whole career to facilitate a move to the Yankees. A staggering amount of personal pride gave way because in Derek Jeter, the Yankees already had one superstar at shortstop, and in Babe Ruth they had already housed the greatest player of all time - retiring the number 3 jersey along with him. That's the kind of thing that happens at the Yankees. The skies over other baseball teams are dimly lit. In New York it's a galaxy.

Even worse for A-Rod, the best player in the league at this point, a megastar and a brand in his own right, was the humiliating small print to the deal.

That the Rangers were paying $67 million of his contract for him to play for someone else.

Long before the shared penthouse with J-Lo, Rodriguez was born to Dominican parents in the Washington Heights district of Manhattan as families from the Caribbean made the neighbourhood their home. He returned to his parents' country of birth just before the crack cocaine epidemic took hold of New York City in the 1980s but moved back to the United States a few years later, settling in Miami.

There, he became the sporting prodigy his American Dream upbringing demanded. He received a scholarship offer from the University of Miami to become their starting shortstop and quarterback, a titan on campus. A deity in a letterman jacket.

"I went through a time where I wanted to be a quarter-back at the University of Miami and play baseball. But my blood is Dominican. I’m from a Dominican background and in my country baseball is like a religion, like soccer for you guys.

"When I started sort of varying to basketball and football, my mother brought me back and told me: baseball is your thing."

He didn't have a choice after that. The university's baseball stadium is named after him even though Rodriguez never took to the field there. Instead he was selected first overall in the 1993 MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners. He was 17 years old.

It took him last than a year to become their starting shortstop, only the third 18-year-old to play there in the major league since 1900 and the youngest position player in Mariners history.

His first scoring hit would, of course, come at Fenway Park, the iconic home of the Boston Red Sox, the team the rest of the league would prevent him from joining almost a decade later.

It's the oldest stadium in the MLB; a red brick and rusted green steel watercolour of a venue. Where memory and history practically ooze out of the walls, drops of sepia that fall onto the gangways and the steps like mustard and ketchup running along a hotdog.

To see baseball there, the sharp white blur of the ball fired over that emerald sea beneath it, and to hear baseball, the sonic boom clap of leather off wood, is the only way to understand the sport. To properly understand it. It just makes sense, that this, a three-hour long slog of inaction, of swings and misses and outs and more outs, the only sport in the world where the defending team has possession of the ball, still has the capacity to enthral a nation that demands constant entertainment almost by virtue of its own existence.

It's a game that, for all the revolutionary analytics that have consumed it; spreadsheets and numbers and figures and percentages, an infinite swamp for the layman to wade through; analytics that are now in the process of consuming everything else; not just basketball and football but what adverts you see, who you will fall in love with; still relies on the most primitive instincts of sport.

Can you catch? Can you throw? How quick? How far? How fast can you run? How well can you swing this bat at this ball? How hard can you hit it? Halfway down the field? Over that 40 foot fence at the opposite of the stadium? To the moon?

They call it the five tools: hit, hit for power, run, field, throw. The semantics of that are important: why tools? Once upon a time man had flint weapons. Now we don't have to worry about hunting or fending off predators and our food comes as a lumpen patty in a bun and we're fat and we're lazy and most of all doomed, irreversibly doomed, so we need something. To pass the time as much as to challenge us. That's what tools are, aren't they? A means of survival. Well, baseball asks. Who would have survived?

A-Rod was, well and truly, a complete five tool player, one of the best of all time, and yet even he stands in awe of some of the athletes currently dominating the MLB as the league grows bigger and stronger.

"We are seeing balls by big guys and little guys getting hit 300, 400, 500 feet. Two of our strongest, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, 6’6” and 6’7”, could have been American football players. They are hitting baseballs like golf balls. The sound - extraordinary. How far - incredible. When you are sat among them - I’m one of the little guys - you are just like holy shit!

Giancarlo Stanton and Alex Rodriguez

Giancarlo Stanton and Alex Rodriguez

"But when you get down there you don’t realise how big these guys are. Watching guys take ground balls, catching them, how difficult it is but how easy they make it look. Then when you watch the game you get an appreciation for what can happen.

"Watch Aaron Judge hit a ball 500 feet at 5 o’clock: the anticipation that you might see that is where the magic lives."

Baseball, you see, has evolved. It's about survival of the fittest now. Survival of the freaks of nature.

Athletes as remarkable Stanton and Judge belong at Yankee Stadium, the vast, gleaming, pristine expanse that rises up between the metro lines in the Bronx. If Fenway Park is Ancient Greek's Olympia palaestra then this is the Colosseum for the new age, the land upon which giants and immortals roam.

Aaron Judge, in particular, is absolutely cartoonish in both size and proportion. He looks like something out of Space Jam. He plays right field, which means he's always fielding deep towards the outer limits to the right hand side of the batter. Standing out alone in the field with nobody within fifty feet, he almost looks normal. Whenever he comes within range of another player... well... you can see what I mean.

Watching him warm up before the game, cracking balls deep into left field, centre field and out to the right is like watching a zookeeper lob dripping, raw steaks into the lion pit and have them devoured before they even reach the ground.

In A-Rod's words: "He is adopted, 6 feet 7 inches, weighs 280 pounds, runs like a deer, jumps like a frog and hits a ball like He-Man. He is just super human. Looks like a god in pinstripes. And when you meet him you are like 'holy smokes'."

It all sounds hyperbole until you see it and then 'a god in pinstripes' doesn't sound like much of an exaggeration. There's something in it. It's straight out of a Marvel hero's origin story: a baby in a basket on a doorstep nurtured into a devastating colossus at the plate and in the field, the best player for the most famous sports team in history, a gold-plated titan with shoulders broad enough to carry the entire, unbearable weight of New York.

He's right about the magic. Most of the time spent watching the Yankees is spent watching Judge specifically. Watching him pluck balls from impossible heights and watching him tower over the batters mound, the threat of a fireball crushed into the upper bleachers never far away. As it was when A-Rod was the adonis in pinstripes.

But the history is where the magic lives, too. The momentary bursts of heroism are nothing without the grand, overarching narrative that gives these astounding feats of athleticism their context. The superhero stopping the train with its brakes cut isn't important unless its filled with people, unless it's flying off a bridge into a canyon, unless it was all part of some dastardly plot by an arch-nemesis.

The good versus evil, us versus them mindset that shapes the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is drilled into every major sporting city across North America but A-Rod believes that with these two franchises it just means more. They arrive in the UK on June 29 to play two games at West Ham's London Stadium, the first MLB fixtures ever hosted in Europe. It's significant that, unlike the NBA, baseball is sending their two fattest, prized cows for British fans to chew on.

"We’re going back to the last century and the very beginning of it, thinking about Babe Ruth and getting traded from one to the other, being a great pitcher and then maybe the greatest slugger of all time."

Billed as the 'greatest rivalry in sports', it makes Manchester United and Liverpool's historic discord seem like an embarrassing Twitter spat.

When Ruth was traded in 1920, it was rumoured the reason was that Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, needed the money to finance his broadway musicals. 'The Curse of the Bambino' began, which meant no World Series win for 86-years for the Red Sox, whilst the Yankees amassed 26 titles in the same period. The futures of the two franchises were irrevocably tied to one another, but it might as well have been an anchor to a space shuttle.

Harry Frazee

Harry Frazee

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

"It’s been 100 years of an absolute battle between two great markets with two incredibly smart fan bases. It’s 24/7, especially in this era more than ever, and me being such a big part of it, and I mean big, because I was traded to the Red Sox and the fact that there is a contract out there with John Henry’s (Red Sox and Liverpool owner) signature, my signature and there’s only one missing - and that was the players' union."

"So here I am working on this deal for a few months and everyone’s excited like my family is excited, Red Sox nation is excited, the deal happened and then we just pull it back."

"Then a few weeks later I’m collecting my MVP award and I have none other than Brian Cashman sitting next to me, who has been the Yankees general manager over the last 20 years and a conversation and a drink lead into 'Would you move over to third base?' and I said 'Yeah, why not?'".

"Two drinks later he said 'Were you serious?'. I go 'Yeah, I think' and a few weeks later there was a press conference and I’m announced as a Yankee. The turn of events was wild and then the World Championship for 2004 is a whole book you could write about it."

Imagine that for a second: getting tipsy at your own MVP award ceremony and agreeing to move to the Yankees. After a failed trade to the most bitter of rivals. Only in A-Rod's world.

2004 is a good place to pick the story up. In the American League Championship Series (the ALCS - essentially the semi-final before the World Series proper) between the two franchises, Boston became the first and still the only team to ever come back from 0-3 down in a best of seven games baseball series. It would be their first title since Babe Ruth was traded 86 years earlier. Back from the dead to break the hex.

That it occurred in A-Rod's first season with the Yankees, against the team he was almost traded to, was enough.

That it included Rodriguez equalling the post-season record for runs in a game - he scored five in Game 3 to give the Yankees a seemingly insurmountable lead - AND the most infamous play of his entire career, was probably too much.

Describing it to me now, he doesn't hold anything back.

"Yeah it was the most unbelievable, the worst dream you can imagine. You win three in a row. In a bad way. We really beat them down. I remember first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who was a big personality, he said: 'A Rod. Come on. For TV ratings. Let us just win one game. Just one game. We’ve gotta make it fun. We’re in the entertainment business.'

"And not only did they win one game, they won four. It was crazy. I never thought that would happen, but in baseball anything can happen.

"It was very strange because I had been coming to Fenway Park for many, many years as a Ranger and as a Mariner and all of a sudden I come in literally as public enemy number one."

"It was so confusing because I was trying to give up almost $4,000,000 to come and play for you and now you’re booing me. I’m like 'I love you guys but now I’m with the enemy'. I was heartbroken.

"I remember I was so heartbroken that we went out one night, my buddies were here from home and we had a few drinks and I ended up throwing up.

"I just couldn’t believe that you work on something so gruelling, you work on it 24/7, and it’s consuming, and it’s such an emotional thing because you’re moving your entire family to a new place, a new city, new schools...

"It was just the high of the yes and the devastation of the no.

"But 2004 made 2009 unforgettable. I had to work at it for over 15 years. Of course there’s doubts [whether it would ever happen]. There’s always doubts. But you can smell it, you’re just a few outs away. 

"It was so rewarding because it was exciting but more than that it was liberating. It was like phew. Done it.

"And I knew that whatever happened, they can’t take that championship away from me."

He doesn't refer to it explicitly, of course, A-Rod is savvier than that, but the reason 2009 mattered so much wasn't just the defeat against the Red Sox in '04.

2009 was also the year that Rodriguez was included in a Sports Illustrated report that listed 104 major league players that tested positive for steroid use six years prior.

Three days after the report, he conducted an exclusive interview with ESPN in which he admitted taking performance enhancing drugs for a three-year period from 2001, whilst with the Texas Rangers.

Rodriguez cited the "enormous amount of pressure to perform", the "different culture in baseball at the time" and stressed that his years as a Yankee were completely clean.

10 months later, he was a champion. Salvation with an asterisk.

The question mark of PED use that looms over the career of every baseball superstar of the late 90s and early 00s is best discussed in this seminal article by The Ringer's Bill Simmons, a phenomenon he compares to his kids continuing to believe in Santa despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The ethics and morality of it don't bear going into here when that piece exists.

What it does do, however, is add even more shade and texture to Alex Rodriguez's already remarkable career, an almost perfect encapsulation of the volatile trajectory and murky vanity of the modern American sport superstar. It's like a wooly mammoth preserved in glycerine, something to be studied and observed and extrapolated, a reference point against which to analyse the old gods and the new, Ruth and Bonds, Judge and Stanton once their own careers are done.

What's a redemption story without sins to redeem? What is the point of an icon if it is not someone who starts with nothing, gains everything, and meanders between hero and villain, Red Sox and Yankees, along the way?

But most of all: how can you win anything if you don't lose it all first?

It remains to be seen whether Europe will take to baseball following the first London Series. The nuances of the game don't make for easy viewing the first time round. Or indeed the second. Or the third. But there will be moments that threaten to really capture the imagination of the British audience, when there are runners on base and the newest, shiniest, pinstriped totem is idling up to the plate to stop a meteor from destroying the earth.

A-Rod's career serves a fascinating glimpse into baseball as a whole, where the narratives run as thick as novels and where every story feels like a screenplay. Leaving his apartment building in the Manhattan sky by way of an underground security entrance, complete with guards, it's hard not to think about the American dream, what it means, and just what this country can do to someone, how much it can enrich the tapestry of a life if it believes the person is gifted.

If they are big enough, strong enough, fast enough, fit enough. If they are willing to blur the edges between good and bad and push themselves into a place that exists between constant, relentless adoration and intense, unforgiving scrutiny. If they are willing to be told they are a God. Even more than that, if they are willing to believe it themselves.

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