How Alex Ro­driguez be­came beloved again.

Alex Ro­driguez is a role model again, says Lisa Swan. Yes, re­ally.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - lm­swansi@gmail.com Lisa Swan co-writes Sub­way Squawk­ers, a Yan­kees-Mets fan blog.

Alex Ro­driguez was the kind of fig­ure who brings Amer­i­cans to­gether: Just months ago, the su­per­star Yan­kees third base­man was, by unan­i­mous con­sent, a na­tional vil­lain. He had re­ceived the long­est sus­pen­sion in MLB history for his use of per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs, miss­ing the en­tire 2014 sea­son. He was a known cheater, liar and all-around weirdo. He had paid off his creepy cousin Yuri to keep quiet about what sub­stances he used, sued ev­ery­body from Yan­kees team doc­tor Chris Ah­mad to Columbia Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter to the com­mis­sioner of Ma­jor League Base­ball, and even­tu­ally made a deal with the feds. He was caught cheat­ing on his wife with a strip­per and broke up his mar­riage for good when he re­port­edly de­cided that Madonna was his soul­mate. (Madonna doesn’t have a soul, dude!)

When A-Rod’s sus­pen­sion ended this spring, he could have stayed ex­actly the same and still earned $64 mil­lion over the next three sea­sons, as his fa­mously in­flated con­tract re­quires. Af­ter all, change is hard, and chang­ing peo­ple’s opin­ion of you is even harder. In­stead, Ro­driguez has achieved both, re­turn­ing not only as a fab­u­lous al­most-40year-old base­ball player will­ing to do what­ever his man­ager and coaches say, but also as a player who goes out of his way to make amends, to act like a men­sch and to reach out to the fans. It is the most re­mark­able ca­reer trans­for­ma­tion since Matthew McConaughey turned him­self from a shirt­less himbo into an Os­car win­ner. It is truly an in­spi­ra­tional re­demp­tion story — a les­son for any public fig­ure dis­patched to the wilder­ness.

A-Rod’s history of vil­lainy and ec­cen­tric­ity is al­most hard to be­lieve. He up­staged the 2007 World Se­ries by opt­ing out of his con­tract with the Yan­kees, then man­aged to get an even big­ger one from the team, filled with per­for­mance-based mile­stone bonuses that the Yan­kees now refuse to pay. He kissed his re­flec­tion in a mir­ror dur­ing an in­ter­view with De­tails mag­a­zine. He al­legedly com­mis­sioned paint­ings of him­self as a cen­taur. He let Cameron Diaz feed him pop­corn at the Su­per Bowl like she was putting food into a baby bird’s mouth.

On the field, A-Rod was a Hall of Fam equal­ity player, but he did bizarre things dur­ing games as well, es­pe­cially in the play­offs. One play that still de­fines him oc­curred dur­ing the 2004 Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries, when he slapped the ball from the glove of Red Sox pitcher Bron­son Ar­royo while run­ning to first base, a bush-league move that ex­em­pli­fied the in­ept­ness of the Yan­kees against Bos­ton that year. Other than part of that 2004 post­sea­son and his ex­cep­tional 2009 post­sea­son, Ro­driguez had mul­ti­ple sea­sons of play­off fu­til­ity, capped by his be­ing pinch-hit for in the 2012 play­offs, then flirt­ing with fe­male fans dur­ing a game and fi­nally be­ing re­peat­edly benched that Oc­to­ber.

A-Rod suf­fered by the in­her­ent com­par­i­son with Derek Jeter, the beloved team cap­tain. Ro­driguez was Nixon to Jeter’s Kennedy, all flop sweat up against Jeter’s cool charisma. Jeter’s un­ques­tioned supremacy at short­stop forced Ro­driguez to change po­si­tions when he joined the Yan­kees, and he nursed a grudge, say­ing that No. 2 “never had to lead.” As pay­back, Jeter de­clined to lead Yan­kees fans by telling them not to boo A-Rod.

Ro­driguez’s im­mense skill and even big­ger con­tract made him a larger-than-life, al­most Dick­en­sian char­ac­ter for the press, which chron­i­cled his ev­ery flaw. Mean­while, Jeter got a pass as re­porters ig­nored his de­te­ri­o­rat­ing ath­leti­cism, the gift bas­kets he gave to one-night stands and his self-ag­gran­diz­ing RE2PECT farewell tour, com­plete with “King of NY” cleats and the ego­tis­ti­cal “My Way” theme song. Through it all, the Yan­kees cap­tain some­how kept up his classy, team­first im­age, even as he re­fused to ab­di­cate his short­stop role or move down in the lineup when he could no longer hit or field well.

While some of the com­plaints against Ro­driguez over the years were silly — did it re­ally mat­ter that he took his shirt off in Cen­tral Park or ran across pitcher Dal­las Braden’s mound? — the over­whelm­ing sense that came with his un­prece­dented sus­pen­sion was that Ro­driguez had reaped what he sowed, had hit rock bot­tom and would live in in­famy for the rest of his base­ball life.

But a funny thing hap­pened af­ter A-Rod be­came MLB’s big­gest pariah. He be­gan try­ing some­thing he’d never done be­fore: turn­ing his life around. “No fa­ther, no col­lege — these are his two gap­ing wounds, his two great sor­rows,” J.R. Moehringer wrote in a long, road-to-perdi­tion pro­file for ESPN the Mag­a­zine. So Ro­driguez spent 2014 go­ing to in­ten­sive ther­apy ses­sions, at­tend­ing a col­lege class to see if he had what it takes to be a stu­dent and apol­o­giz­ing to ev­ery­one he had wronged: He came to the Yan­kees brass in per­son with his mea culpa, and he of­fered a hand­writ­ten apol­ogy to the fans.

This wasn’t strictly nec­es­sary. Barry Bonds, Roger Cle­mens and Lance Armstrong stayed their prickly selves af­ter their own per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing-drug scan­dals. Nev­er­the­less, the world be­gan to get a sense for the new Alex Ro­driguez in 2015.

Al­ways known as a hard worker, he showed up to spring train­ing early and kept his cool, even when his ar­rival strangely ticked off the Yan­kees. His team’s front of­fice made it clear that it wished A-Rod would just stay home and re­tire, but Ro­driguez took the high road and re­fused to com­plain, at least not pub­licly, as he might have once done. When he lost his po­si­tion at third base to Chase Headley, when he was told he would play only as the des­ig­nated hitter, when he was put at the bot­tom of the lineup, when he was or­dered to pick up a first base­man’s glove, when the Yan­kees told him they wouldn’t pay the $6 mil­lion in mile­stone money he earned by ty­ing Wil­lie Mays’s 660-homer record — he ab­sorbed all these hu­mil­i­a­tions and more. He swal­lowed his titanic pride. He even showed a hum­ble and self-deprecating side, as well as a sense of hu­mor — new de­vel­op­ments for a man once ob­sessed with suc­cess.

Most im­por­tant, A-Rod showed that he could play again at a high level — a come­back story in the fullest mean­ing of the phrase. The year off al­lowed his bad hips to heal, and as he ap­proaches his 40th birth­day next month, he is back bat­ting third. On Fri­day night, he hit a home run to reach that magic num­ber: 3,000 ca­reer hits.

A-Rod’s post-Jeter-era team­mates are im­pressed by his base­ball acu­men and will­ing­ness to share his knowl­edge. They oc­ca­sioned his 660th home run by giv­ing him a beer shower, a cel­e­bra­tion that seemed un­think­able just a few years ago.

Now A-Rod is get­ting what he has al­ways craved — love and af­fec­tion from Yan­kees fans. From re­ceiv­ing the loud­est ova­tion of any Yan­kee on open­ing day to get­ting a cur­tain call when he hit his 661st homer and passed Mays on the all-time home run list, Ro­driguez is feel­ing the love; he is now the team’s most pop­u­lar player. Yan­kees T-shirt seller “Bald” Vinny Mi­lano, who once hawked anti-A-Rod ap­parel, has be­come a vo­cal sup­porter of No. 13, selling #FORG1V3 shirts. Ro­driguez even got a stand­ing ova­tion Mon­day night from an away team’s fans, as the Yan­kees played his home­town Mi­ami Mar­lins.

New York Times colum­nist Tyler Kepner, a long­time critic of A-Rod who has called him “one of base­ball’s great­est con men,” grudg­ingly ac­knowl­edged how much Ro­driguez has changed his im­age, writ­ing that “it is stun­ning to see Ro­driguez’s dis­ci­pline this sea­son,” and that “for Ro­driguez to go this long with­out caus­ing any con­tro­versy, with­out say­ing the wrong thing or so much as smirk­ing at the wrong mo­ment, is as re­mark­able as his hit­ting re­vival.” It’s an ex­am­ple that Johnny Manziel, who this past week said he’s done with his wild “Johnny Football” per­sona, could study.

We want our role mod­els to be per­fect, es­pe­cially for our chil­dren’s sake. But what can flaw­less, con­tour-free stat­ues — the mar­ble crea­tures on pedestals — re­ally teach us about over­com­ing ad­ver­sity? The re­al­ity is that most of us have more A-Rod in us than we do Jeter. No. 2 is cool but bor­ing; No. 13 is the one who, af­ter decades of try­ing, fi­nally bested his de­mons — the flawed hu­man who dug his own grave, then climbed out of it.

When I ran my first half-marathon this spring, af­ter a life­time as a couch potato, A-Rod was a source of in­spi­ra­tion. If Ro­driguez, the most hated man in base­ball just a few months ago, could come all the way back to cheers from pre­vi­ously dis­gusted fans, even as his team’s front of­fice op­posed him at ev­ery turn, 13.1 miles for an over­weight back-of-the-packer like me sud­denly seemed at­tain­able.

DENNY MED­LEY/USA TO­DAY SPORTS VIA REUTERS

Since re­turn­ing from his sea­son-long sus­pen­sion, Alex Ro­driguez has avoided the shenani­gans, on and off the field, that tar­nished his rep­u­ta­tion.

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