In the days immediately after Alex Rodriguez held a wildly uncomfortable press conference to admit he’d used steroids, the Sports Illustrated reporter responsible for the news, Selena Roberts, noticed a change in the air.
“I think he was a sympathetic figure after that awkward press conference,” said Ms. Roberts. “There’s a turning point with people: They say he’s our guy. For Alex, it was a turning point. I don’t think he’s ever had a connection with the New York fans; he’s always been distant.”
He was part of A-ROD CORP., a guy who had an army of handlers, a guy who made $30 million a year, a Lonely Yankee who was the perpetual outsider. He was the guy who came into New York and hasn’t ever delivered a championship—a prima donna who cared less about baseball than he did his relationship to Madonna.
But now: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as vulnerable and fragile,” she said. “The fans needed Alex to be human, and that’s what he’s become to them.”
At the time, the tabloids were still looking pretty unforgiving. During a stretch after the story broke, A-Rod appeared on the back page of the News 20 out of 27 days—and sometimes he was on the front page, too.
“It looked like every hand was turned against him,” said James Sharp—a Washington lawyer who has represented George W. Bush and Kenneth Lay and whom A-Rod hired shortly after the story broke—in a rare interview.
“I certainly knew it was going to be difficult given the public spotlight that had been put on Alex,” said Jay Reisinger, a Pittsburgh lawyer who joined the A-Rod camp a little while after the press conference. “But this is what we do for a living. We help people out of trouble.”
Mr. Reisinger and Mr. Sharp have worked together in the cases of Andy Pettite and Sammy Sosa after they dealt with steroid allegations, and who likewise dealt with a bloodthirsty press.
So the two drew up a familiar game plan: Alex needed to stop talking about it the second the press conference ended.
“It’s a combination of contrition and quietness,” said Mr. Reisinger.
“It has been my experience, at least with Andy Pettite and Sammy back in 2005, that if there isn’t grist for the mill, the American public tends to forgive and forget,” he continued. “At the end of the day, when allegations are made against you, I find it best not to comment on it. It just generates more discussion. At the end of the day, he did what he had to do. He manned up, he went in front of the world, he admitted what he did, and quite frankly, he doesn’t have to explain himself anymore.”
Their theory is that “less is more,” he explained.
And then, with a sudden stroke of fate, A-Rod got injured and needed to have hip surgery. He disappeared into the mountains in Colorado to rehab, and suddenly the story went away for a little while.
While A-Rod was rehabbing, his lawyers still had to deal with a brewing obstacle: Ms. Roberts’ book, A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez, the research for which had provided her with her big steroid break, was going to be published shortly before his return to baseball in early May, which would include her Sports Illustrated reporting and potentially more.
But they didn’t see this as an obstacle.
“I didn’t expect, at the end of the day, that she would have anything new, exciting, different in the book,” said Mr. Reisinger.
Days before the book was published, the News got an advance copy and threw it on the wood: A-Rod BOOK BOMBSHELL, screamed the headline, and included small advances: He may have taken steroids as a Yankee—he claimed he only did it as a Ranger—he tipped pitches to opponents, and his nickname in the locker room was “Bitch Tits.”
The stories just didn’t take. And before long, Ms. Roberts found herself, rather than her subject, in the cross hairs.
Back in 2006, Ms. Roberts, then a Times reporter, was reporting the story of a team of Duke lacrosse players who’d been accused of sexual assault by a stripper they had hired to attend a party. The players were later exonerated, and the press and police’s handling of the story became the rallying cry for advocates of the rights of the accused.
“If you look at Amazon before the book came out, there were already a dozen one-star reviews basically attacking her for her Duke reporting,” said David Hirshey, the executive editor at Harper, which published the book. “As far as I know, only two or three people—the Daily News, HarperCollins and The Times—had read the book.”
And once the book was released, radio hosts and bloggers came after her. WFAN’s Craig Carton scolded her in an interview, saying that it was a hit job and that she clearly wanted to take him down for her own benefit. The Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock called her a “hard-core feminist.” On a Chicago radio show, she effectively had to come out as a lesbian on the air.