Among the greatest sports stories ever told, none pulls more sweetly at the heartstrings than the one about the Comeback Kid. The fall from grace followed by the rise to glory. The hero down in the count or left in the dust, making the come-from-behind move at the clubhouse turn, floating it out of the park with two out in the bottom of the ninth. The fan nation wonders where Joe DiMaggio has gone and looks to its greatest athletes to preserve its hope, and time was when they could provide the stuff of dreams and supply sportswriters with grist for the mills of legend.
The sweet story no longer holds true to form. The invincible Tiger Woods takes a leave from golf after multiple infidelities are revealed by at least nine mistresses. He says he is sorry. It’s hard to believe him. He returns to competition without his game, another middle-of-the-pack golfer. Michael Vick, the most exciting player in the NFL in 2006, goes to prison for dogfighting, returns to football without his game, and barely gets off the bench. Pete Rose, the banished “Hit King,” never to be forgiven for betting on baseball, hustles his own autographs in Las Vegas.
Sportswriters know too much to save them from disgrace in Mudville, and so the task falls to the flacks and publicists, the stylists, image consultants, and crisis managers who have become our newfound instruments of redemption.
Take the marvelous and true tale of Alex Rodriguez, an unlikely prospect for the role of the Comeback Kid. “A-Rod” is tabloid shorthand now, having been linked to Madonna, having slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove during the 2004 American League Championship Series, having apologized on national television for being a liar and a cheat. But the nickname was always part of a marketing plan, trademarked back in 1996 as a branding tool under the umbrella of A-Rod Corp, LLC. And A-Rod has always liked being called A-Rod. Let’s call him Alex.
Alex was born July 27, 1975, to Dominican parents in New York City, where he currently plays third base for the Yankees. He is considered one of the best all-around baseball players of all time, his $275 million contract the richest in baseball history. Alex’s five-hundredth homer cleared the left-field wall in Yankee Stadium just past his thirty-second birthday, putting him on track to claim the lifetime home-run record that Barry Bonds was closing in on at the time. Bonds, of course, was spreading asterisks over the sediment layers of statistics on which the game rests in his steroid-fueled odyssey to surpass the 755-homer mark set by the great Henry Aaron. Alex was different, still young and seemingly almost innocent enough to bring smiles to cynical fans disillusioned by reports that Bonds’ hat size had ballooned from 7 1/8 to 7 1/2 and that aging Yankees fireballer Roger Clemens was injecting illicit substances into his buttocks.
But then, on February 9, 2009, after previously denying use of performance-enhancing drugs—including during an interview with Katie Couric on 60 Minutes, in which he said he was such a natural he didn’t need any enhancement—Rodriguez shockingly admitted to taking steroids. His voice clutching, Alex said he used them from 2001 to 2003 (the year he was American League MVP) due to what he called “an enormous amount of pressure” to perform. It all made Alex very sad and angry and confused, and he hadn’t wanted to admit to anything. There is Providence in the fall of Alex. Just as long as Providence gives the slugger another shot.