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Larry Stone: Alex Rodriguez, back with ESPN, reflects on leaving Seattle

UPDATED: Fri., March 29, 2019, 7:49 p.m.

Alex Rodriguez, center, is congratulated by his Seattle Mariners teammates in the dugout after a solo home run against the Anaheim Angels on  Oct. 1, 2000, in Anaheim, Calif. (KEVORK DJANSEZIAN / Associated Press)
Alex Rodriguez, center, is congratulated by his Seattle Mariners teammates in the dugout after a solo home run against the Anaheim Angels on Oct. 1, 2000, in Anaheim, Calif. (KEVORK DJANSEZIAN / Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – As former Mariners star Alex Rodriguez flew into Seattle on Wednesday, he gave his two daughters, who have accompanied him on the trip, a quick tutorial on the city’s entrepreneurial giants such as Starbucks, Amazon and Boeing.

He excitedly told them of his plans to take them to the fish market, the Space Needle, and show them the place he used to live with their mother.

As Rodriguez tells it, the girls, ages 14 and 10, rolled their eyes and said, “Take a nap, Dad.”

You might be rolling your eyes as well. A-Rod has that effect on people, especially in Seattle. But as he prepared to resume his ESPN broadcasting career during Thursday’s Mariners-Red Sox game at T-Mobile Park as part of the Sunday Night Baseball crew, something amazing has happened.

Rodriguez’s image has taken a remarkable, positive turn since the darkest days of 2014, when he was the sport’s leading pariah. He views his life now in two distinct segments – before and after suspension. The reference is to the 211-game penalty that then-Commissioner Bud Selig slapped on him for his involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing-drug scandal, costing A-Rod the entire 2014 season.

That was “Ground Zero,” Rodriguez says now. He later told broadcaster Joe Buck that he laid in his bed and cried. A-Rod’s lifelong quest for acceptance through baseball had been critically damaged. His answer was to re-examine his life, take ownership for his mistakes and put himself back out in the public eye, but as a changed man.

“I think perspective and experience and a little gray hair goes a long ways,” he said. “I took myself so seriously. I was so robotic. I wanted to be this perfect player. What I realize is there is no perfect player.”

I know – it sounds smarmy. Throughout his career, no one tried harder at coming off as genuine, and failed more miserably. But as a longtime A-Rod observer, dating to his breakout 1996 season at age 20, I can attest that there is now a sincerity and warmth that shines through during a coffee meeting Wednesday night.

It is unforced, which is why it finally resonates. And A-Rod is front and center these days in his second season with Matt Vasgersian and Jessica Mendoza on ESPN’s lead baseball crew. He also totes an Emmy for his well-received role on the FOX postseason studio show, where his sharp analytical skills first shined through in 2015.

That’s not to mention Rodriguez’s wide-ranging business ventures funneled through A-Rod Corp, his varied media projects that include a stint on the TV show “Shark Tank,” and his active Instagram account with 2.7 million followers (only about 88 million fewer than the account of his fiancée, Jennifer Lopez).

Speaking of which, Rodriguez is now a fixture on the celebrity circuit (with recent appearances on Lopez’s arm at both the Oscars and Grammys) as well as in the gossip pages by virtue of his two-year relationship with J-Lo. He popped the question – and presented a 16-carat diamond engagement ring – this month during a vacation in the Bahamas.

“I guess I got a good (gossip) precourse a little bit with my days with the Yanks in New York,” Rodriguez, 43, said.

Mostly, more than two years removed from his final game, A-Rod is visibly happy, which helps immeasurably with casting a softer image. He and Lopez, 49, have a blended family with his two children, Natasha and Ella (with ex-wife Cynthia Scurtis), as well as her 11-year-old twins, Max and Emme (with ex-husband Marc Anthony).

“We’re incredibly fortunate and grateful,” he said. “We’re both from New York. We’ve both had ups and downs. We’re both living the dream, in many ways.”

Google “Alex Rodriguez and redemption,” and you’ll find scores of articles (including a Vanity Fair cover story headlined, “Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez on Love, Beauty and Redemption”). But the key to finding redemption, he believes, is not to go looking for it.

“You know, I don’t think it’s something you can calculate, because if you do, I think you’re going to fail miserably,” he said. “I think you have to, number one, understand who you are, understand that I’ve made great mistakes. I’ve paid great penalties. In the course of those mistakes, I think I learned some great lessons.

“What I learned was a few things. A, not to take myself so seriously. B, to bring some levity into my life. I’m not a robot. I’m a guy, just like anybody else, that is flawed. And what I realize is that coming back from suspension, the most important things are not just home runs, contracts and RBIs. It’s being a father, it’s being a good friend, it’s being a good partner. And not taking yourself so seriously.”

Flying into Seattle, where it all started for Rodriguez as a teenage phenom and No. 1 overall draft pick by the Mariners in 1993, brings back a flood of memories, mostly fond but also understandably wistful. The first person he visited with upon his arrival Wednesday was former teammate Edgar Martinez, whom he termed “my hero, my idol, from day one.”

“I love Seattle,” he said. “In many ways, it was the most pure and most original time for me. Because it was where my mom dropped me off out of high school. She basically left me in the arms of Chuck Armstrong and Woody Woodward and Lou Piniella and said, ‘Here’s my son. He’s yours.’

“And then ultimately, I became kind of a son to the city. And kind of a second son behind (Ken Griffey Jr.), six years apart, both No. 1 picks, both drafted by Roger Jongewaard, both managed by Lou Piniella. It was a fascinating, incredible time for me.”

Of course, the relationship turned toxic when Rodriguez signed his 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers after the 2000 season. His first return visit with the Rangers unleashed a torrent of vitriol (and paper money) from jilted Mariners fans, with much antipathy to follow over the years. From favored son, Rodriguez became Public Enemy No. 1 in Seattle.

“It was such an odd feeling coming back,” he reflected. “I go from 18 to 24, being like a hero, to coming back at 25 and being a villain. But I really feel it is in good nature. Sports is sports, and is entertainment.

“At the end of the day, I went out and practiced what is my right. I put in my six years (for free agency). I made a decision, but coming back to Seattle, I’d say with the exception of that very first time I came back, every time back I felt it was a great homecoming.

“Every time, like this time, I would come home and I would have literally, in three days, like eight different breakfasts, lunch and dinners. By the time I left here, I not only didn’t hit well, but I’d gained 6 pounds from all the meals.”

Reflecting on those days, and his ongoing affection for teammates such as Edgar, Griffey (rumors of a rivalry between the two were patently false, he said), Jay Buhner and the rest, A-Rod turns a bit melancholy.

“It’s funny, Lou Piniella said to me, ‘I wish I would have had you for a couple extra years.’ Because he said, ‘My work wasn’t done with you yet.’ The truth of the matter is, I left this incredible place as a 24-year-old, and looking back, maybe it was just a couple years too early. Because I think being under the tutelage of Lou and Buhner and Griffey. those guys were incredible, and they gave me so much protection that it allowed me to grow at a nice pace.

“Once I left here, everything was different.”

Rodriguez was one of the first to foresee the dominance of the 2001 Mariners, predicting in spring training that year they would win 110 games. It seemed like a typically cloying comment from someone trying to curry favor. Actually, he was selling them short. The Mariners won 116.

A-Rod wonders now what he could have added to a team that lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, short of the elusive World Series yet again. And still the last Mariners playoff team, 18 seasons later.

“I always think about that – boy, if I stayed one more year, with Ichiro, maybe we could take on Goliath and actually get over the top,” he said. “But that never came.”

What came instead was a World Series title with the Yankees in 2009 (in which Rodriguez erased, at least temporarily, his reputation for wilting in the clutch by hitting .365 with six homers in the postseason), surrounded by a never-ending stream of controversy.

He would admit eventually that he began using PEDs in 2001 because of the tremendous pressure he felt to live up to the immense contract. Now free of that burden, Rodriguez can embrace his passionate love of baseball (he said he’s “madly in love” with the sport) with an often nerd-like depth and an insider’s perception.

A-Rod may never make the Hall of Fame despite hitting more homers – 696 – than anyone in MLB history but Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. He may never be beloved, and Seattle fans might continue to hold a grudge. But Alex Rodriguez, finally, appears comfortable in his own skin.

“Look, at the end of the day, in a short life, a lot has happened,” he said. “A lot of ups, a lot of downs. I’ve learned from my mistakes. But I think if there’s one word to describe it, I’m grateful. I’m grateful. And with that comes a better life.”

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