By Ernie Palladino
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Of all the descriptions Alex Rodriguez has answered to throughout his career, mentor has never really been one of them.
Yet, there he was, this man who, at 40, has been alternately but accurately depicted as Hall of Fame slugger, steroid abuser, lineup catalyst, liar, Derek Jeter’s frenemy, and litigious money-grubber, telling the media about his intentions for the future.
“I have hopefully the next 40 years to be a father, to be a friend, and to be an example for my friends,” he said as he wound down his carefully arranged press conference last Thursday.
That represents change for him, perhaps drastic if one equates the word “friend” with “teammate.” A-Rod has never been about much more than himself, but if his feelings are being read correctly. He now wants to stand out not only on the field, but in the hearts of those who play around him.
He wants to help the younger ones learn how to be a pro.
Aside from the obvious question — “Who are you and what have you done with Alex Rodriguez?” — this is encouraging stuff. The Yanks have several good-looking prospects who could turn into major contributors, and having a person like Rodriguez show them the way can only help.
Aaron Judge has already exhibited major power with a soaring batting practice homer over the 40-foot scoreboard in left that left fans and coaches agog. Middle infielder Rob Refsnyder is getting reps at third in case Chase Headley needs a rest. Though Greg Bird won’t be around this year following shoulder surgery, he’ll probably be taking notes.
Even a kid pitcher like Luis Severino can benefit from an old head who has seen and heard just about everything in a locker room, especially when the seen and heard has centered around that very player.
If, indeed, Rodriguez dedicates himself to the mentoring end, it will mark a new chapter in his turbulent life. Perhaps he figures it’s time. After surviving two hip operations, an 18-month PED suspension, and a comeback season where he struck 33 homers and recorded an .842 OPS, he now moves into a full-time slot at DH.
He said he wants to play as long as possible, but that quote indicates that he has at least contemplated his baseball mortality. It happens when one survives that long.
DHing will allow him to last another season. Without having to worry about even occasionally pushing his waning physical abilities to the infield anymore, he can enjoy the liberated feeling of focusing solely on the one thing he can still do well, hit. But whether that allows his career to last another season or two, or four, or whatever, the end is in sight. Baseball-wise, he has many more years behind him than he has ahead of him.
Given the attention he’s always given to burnishing his image, it’s a good bet that he cares deeply about pushing the whole steroids thing — the lies, the admission, the suspension, the $6 million contract lawsuit and its retraction — to the distant past.
He has taken steps to do just that, not only with an outstanding 2015 season, but with an impressive television appearance as a World Series analyst. The fans who greeted him as spring training opened last week offered more warmth than skepticism, a change from last year.
Becoming a true mentor to the Yanks’ youngsters would represent another step in leaving the darker Rodriguez to his deep history.
He knows people will never totally forget that person. The haters will always be out there, and time won’t heal their wounds.
But the ever image-conscious A-Rod also knows that the last impression could at least become the dominant one. And what better figure to cut in his twilight than mentor?
His words seem to indicate he’s ready to take on that role.
We’ll see if he really has changed.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino