- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Excerpted from "THE CAPTAIN: The Journey of Derek Jeter," by Ian O'Connor. Copyright 2011 by Ian O'Connor. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Alex Rodriguez was not just humiliated by his own steroid confessions; he was a physical wreck going into his March 2009 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip. He feared his career might be over, or at least permanently impaired.
"I'd hit rock bottom," A-Rod would say.
Around the same time, Details magazine published a piece on Rodriguez that included a photo showing A-Rod in a muscle shirt, kissing his own reflection in the mirror. So after Rodriguez rehabbed from surgery, and before he rejoined the team in early May, A-Rod would be dragged to a Tampa diner, Mom's Place, by two people close to him -- Yankees PR man Jason Zillo and longtime friend Gui Socarras.
Rodriguez had surrounded himself with an ever-growing circle of advisers and crisis counselors, including Madonna's manager, Guy Oseary, John McCain's strategist, Ben Porritt, PR man Richard Rubenstein, and, of course, Scott Boras. But none of these suits had the nerve to piece together an intervention quite like this: Zillo and Socarras shouted down A-Rod over 90 minutes, ordering him to shed his self-serving skin for keeps.
"I'm glad I had two friends that were very honest with me," Rodriguez said of the ambush.
Two days after this breakfast meeting, A-Rod hit the first post-surgical pitch he saw for a three-run homer in Baltimore. Of greater consequence, he maintained a relatively humble demeanor over the course of the season and, in his words, "divorced myself from any personal achievements."
Rodriguez would say he had spent more time with his teammates off the field -- at dinners and backyard barbecues -- than he had in his first five Yankee years combined. Although A-Rod did not say so publicly, it was obvious Derek Jeter had embraced him as never before.
For one, Jeter had given up trying to understand why A-Rod could not be more like him. For two, Jeter realized an emasculated A-Rod was someone worth giving another shot.
The captain saw A-Rod was making a legitimate attempt to curb his high-maintenance ways. More often than in the past, Jeter was seen engaging Rodriguez in small talk in the clubhouse, in the dugout, around the batting cage. They acted less like business partners with competing agendas and more like teammates with a common goal.
"Alex really believes that for us to win a championship, he needs to have a good working relationship with Derek, and vice versa," one team official said. "I think they have it now. I think they've found enough common ground where Derek can laugh off some of the stuff about Alex in the newspapers.
"I think it took Derek a long time to get that point, where it would frustrate him so much for so long. Derek used to be like, 'Why can't you just get this s--- right? It's easy. Don't say anything. Say what I say, which is nothing.' Now Derek's able to slough it off rather than recreate Alex into somebody who's always going to say and do the right things."
Yes, it was a monumental struggle for Jeter to understand Rodriguez, the attention-starved boy abandoned by his dad. At 35, Jeter was still very much his parents' son. He still sought their approval on a daily basis. He remained, in effect, afraid of his mother and father, or at least afraid of hurting them, which was one of many reasons he did not turn to steroids.
Derek was no diva, of course. Clubhouse guys who were kept busy washing players' cars or filling their gas tanks or fetching their forgotten keys never received such requests from Jeter. "Derek's responsible enough to know when the needle's near empty, he's going to pull into a gas station," said Lou Cucuzza Jr., a visiting clubhouse manager who could not keep up with the requests from the David Ortizes and Zack Greinkes for autographed Jeter jerseys, requests the captain always granted.
"Alex is a great guy; he invites us to his house sometimes for family barbecues. ... But he's different. He wants you to be more hands-on with him. He needs people to care for him a lot more than Derek."
Jeter was a giver, not a taker, and for much of his career A-Rod lived on the other end of the spectrum, lusting after perks, requesting his own cabana boy in the clubhouse.
Only this was the new Rodriguez, playing for the new Girardi, attending family parties with the new recruits, and winning games in the new Stadium.
Jeter was still Jeter, still the impeccably dressed Yankee who quietly sat in the back of the team plane wearing his headphones, watching his movies, largely ignoring the card games played by others. Still the responsible captain who was never seen in a hotel lobby looking disheveled, unshaven or even remotely drunk or buzzed. Still the earnest ambassador who served as Captain America for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
But Jeter was playing the game with a new body, a new plan of attack. Jason Riley's training program had worked. Jeter had turned his glaring weakness -- grounders to his left -- into an actual strength, and he was enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career.
"Fifty years from now," A-Rod would say, "people are going to look at the back of [Jeter's] baseball card and see some crazy number of hits, maybe in the mid-3,000s or maybe even 4,000. But it's not going to capture half the story.
"For me, playing next to him I've learned so much. He's motivated me and inspired me. ... Derek is the ultimate grinder. He's the ultimate winner. ... I don't think he's ever played any better than he's playing
right now. ... He's like a machine. He's like a robot."
They sat at the same table inside a Minneapolis hotel ballroom, two happy couples celebrating a return to the American League Championship Series: Derek Jeter and actress Minka Kelly, Alex Rodriguez
and actress Kate Hudson. The Yankees had swept Minnesota in their best-of-five Division Series, and the left side of their infield was the principal reason why.
Jeter batted .400 with an on-base percentage of .538; A-Rod batted .455 with an on-base percentage of .500. The shortstop hit a big home run in Game 1; the third baseman hit a bigger home run in Game 2, a two-run shot off closer Joe Nathan in the ninth that ultimately allowed Mark Teixeira to win it with his own homer in the 11th.
In the seventh inning of Game 3, with the Twins leading 1-0 and with excommunicated ex-Yankee Carl Pavano back from the dead, Rodriguez homered off his former teammate before Jorge Posada did the same, sending the Yanks back to their hotel for a merry little feast.
Though the Post's Page Six had reported Kelly and Hudson were picking up where Jeter and A-Rod left off -- "Kate Hudson Feels Minka Kelly Brushback," read the headline -- witnesses saw the two couples exchanging easy banter and generally enjoying each other's company.
It was just the four of them at a table for about an hour. "There were tables everywhere, a lot of different groups to sit with," said one witness. "So they literally chose to sit with each other."
One friend of Rodriguez's was glad he had moved on from Madonna and settled in with Hudson, whom the friend described as grounded enough to make for an ideal A-Rod partner for the long term. On the
Minka front, a friend of Jeter's said the shortstop appeared more serious about the "Friday Night Lights" star than he'd been about past actresses, singers and starlets.
But the relationship Yankee officials, players, coaches and fans cared about most was the rapidly improving one between Jeter and Rodriguez, who did their Jordan and Pippen thing in the Twins series
-- Jeter scored four runs, and A-Rod drove him home for three of those four.
Rodriguez was a dynamic force against the Twins, good for six RBI, finally distancing himself from the horrific postseason numbers that had dogged him since the back half of the 2004 ALCS. With his own eyes, Jeter could see the value of a liberated Rodriguez.
"I've had conversations with Derek about this," said Buck Showalter, who managed Jeter briefly in 1995 before managing Rodriguez in Texas in 2003. "Derek understands Alex's positives and negatives. He loves the statistical return he gets from Alex, and he's come to understand the way Alex is."
This is what the rest of baseball feared, the coming together of the most talented player, Rodriguez, and the most resourceful player, Jeter. A-Rod and Jeter were so different as people and athletes, common ground was harder to find than a Bucky Dent fan in Boston.
Their contrasting experiences at the four-hour-and-50-minute 2008 All-Star Game at the old Yankee Stadium had said it all. Long after he was removed from the game, Jeter hung on the dugout railing through all
15 innings, all the way until the American League won at 1:38 a.m. Rodriguez? A day after he spoke of his love for the Stadium and all things pinstriped, A-Rod played four innings, showered, dressed and bolted the premises to start his night on the town, leaving Jeter to see everyone to the door hours later.
Jeter and Rodriguez were the odd couple in every way. Even their pregame approaches to hitting were different; Jeter was not as maniacal or lathered up as Rodriguez in his preparation. The captain took about 30 to 35 swings before batting practice, another 30 to 35 during BP and then another 15 before the game. The shortstop was more of a feel hitter, someone who wanted to see his stride on video before making an adjustment.
"Derek's not one of those guys who does multiple tee drills or a net drill like Alex," said Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. "Alex does a lot of very precise, detailed drills to help his swing, and Derek's not nearly as -- I don't want to say anal, but he doesn't get as sophisticated with it."
Nothing Jeter did mirrored what Rodriguez did, and the rest of baseball only hoped their differences in style, skill and personality would widen the divide between them, until the Yanks finally threw up their hands, swallowed a huge portion of A-Rod's contract and traded him to another owner with stars in his eyes.
But when the Yankees clinched the AL East title, the papers ran photos no enemy of the Yankee state ever wanted to see. These were not pictures of Rodriguez grabbing a reluctant Jeter the way the Babe grabbed a reluctant Gehrig. The photos captured a beaming Jeter lifting A-Rod's cap off his head with his left hand and pouring a bottle of bubbly over A-Rod's bowed scalp with his right.
At last, the captain had baptized Rodriguez a Yankee.
On the night of November 4, 2009, the Yankees stood 27 outs away from their 27th championship and their first in the new Stadium. The Steinbrenners had spent more than $1.6 billion in wages on this pursuit since losing their dynasty in the Arizona desert eight years earlier. A one-for-the-thumb victory for the core four Yankees -- dynasty holdovers Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada -- would make the investment worth it.
It was only fitting that Jeter played a significant role in this clincher vs. the Philadelphia Phillies, contributing three hits and two runs and watching as the new A-Rod, the selfless A-Rod, agreed to accept two walks to help his team. Rodriguez refused to flail away in the hope of extending his hot streak and beating Hideki Matsui and everyone else to the MVP.
Jeter was the unofficial host of this World Series, just as he had been the unofficial host of the All-Star Game in the old Stadium. On the field before Game 1, Jeter kissed the First Lady, Michelle Obama, and the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, and he playfully mugged with Yogi Berra before posing for photos with all three. Jeter also caught the ceremonial first pitch thrown by Tony Odierno, the son of the U.S. commander in Iraq, Raymond Odierno, and a veteran of the Iraq war who had lost an arm.
The following day, Jeter ended up in a news conference before Game 2 to accept the Roberto Clemente Award for his community service. "You're a wonderful role model not only for the youth of America," Bud Selig said at the podium, "but also for our players. You have been the face of baseball for many years, and you're truly deserving of this award."
Selig would say he was proud to be the leader of a sport with Derek Jeter in it, and in full uniform the shortstop stepped to the podium and joked that he had the commissioner fooled, too.
Jeter did everything for the franchise and meant everything to the franchise. Appropriately enough, in a season that would see Jeter win a Gold Glove award, a Silver Slugger award and a Hank Aaron Award, he secured the very last major league hit of 2009, a single off Ryan Madson in the eighth.
With two outs and the Yanks holding a 7-3 lead in the top of the ninth, Mariano Rivera finished what Andy Pettitte had started. The greatest closer of them all got Shane Victorino to ground to second base, and as Robinson Cano was making his throw to first, his double-play partner was running forward in great anticipation, ready to throw his arms toward the black Bronx night.
Jeter and A-Rod ended up in a delirious scrum behind the mound, the weight of the world and the World Series lifted from their shoulders. Jeter had his first ring as a captain, a teary-eyed Rodriguez had his first ring, period, and the brand-new Stadium nearly crumbled around them.
After they ended up on a podium behind second base, there for the official coronation, Jeter held the trophy above his head and said, "It's good to be back. This is right where it belongs."
Soon enough the captain was outside the winning clubhouse, hugging his parents and sister while holding a bottle of Moet & Chandon. Jeter gathered his girlfriend, Minka Kelly, who was tucked tightly under a Yankee cap, and walked her into the clubhouse and toward his locker in the back, away from the madness unfolding in the heart of the room.
Jeter checked on Kelly, made sure she was all set in this dry corner of victory, and then went off to join the fun. "It feels better than I remember it," the captain said. "It's been a long time."
Jeter would grab Rodriguez around the neck, put him in a WWE chokehold and pour champagne over the third baseman's head as he nearly dragged him to the ground, the two of them giggling the way they had on their sleepovers in a different life, bonus babies talking about someday playing on the same team. Yes, A-Rod had discovered it was a lot more fun to impact a World Series with his bat than with an opt-out clause in his contract.
Jeter and Rodriguez ended up with their famous girlfriends and their famous teammates at 1Oak, a trendy Chelsea club, where the Yankees took over the place the way the international soccer stars with the Cosmos used to take over Studio 54. Two mornings later, the Yanks all climbed aboard floats and rode in a ticker-tape parade.
An excerpt from my new book "The Captain," on Derek Jeter and A-Rod.