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.
“There’s no doubt in my mind she was swift-boated by a cabal of talk radio troglodytes who questioned her sexuality and others who were obsessed with the Duke lacrosse rape case,” said Mr. Hirshey. “Whether it was A-Rod’s people or the Yankees who orchestrated this smear campaign, I have no idea.”
His writer doesn’t agree.
“I don’t think A-Rod needs handlers to help him,” said Ms. Roberts. “He’s in a position himself. I don’t think there needed to be a manipulation. I don’t have any evidence there was a manipulation. He himself made a comeback.”
And A-Rod’s handlers deny the backlash against Ms. Roberts was a part of their plan to save their own client’s reputation.
“That was not by design,” said Mr. Sharp.
“When you represent a celebrity client, you don’t want the person writing a book to sell a lot of books,” said Mr. Reisinger. “The less hype and less controversy that surrounds the book—and trying to guess what may be in the book—the less there is of all that, the more it dies down.”
But they stopped short of saying they didn’t peddle Ms. Roberts as a “hard-core feminist” to the press on the strength of her Duke clips.
“She certainly can write and I’m sure she means well,” he continued, “but at the end of the day, taking the allegations she had made against Alex in conjunction with her work on the Duke case, which we extensively reviewed, it was clear to me that sometimes she writes with an agenda.”
When asked whether he passed on some of that information to reporters, he said, “I don’t want to comment on that.”
He described the book—particularly the allegations, which were exclusive to the book and were not included in her Sports Illustrated reporting, that A-Rod took steroids in 2006 and 2007—as “tabloid journalism. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Meanwhile, A-Rod was out of the spotlight, and in his first game back from injury on May 9, his renaissance began in earnest—he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw this season.
“When he hit that home run on that first pitch, I think that was the point he was back and showed that this is what he does,” said Mr. Sharp.
And, most oddly, the A-Rod stories in the paper started dying down. The boos at Yankee Stadium started dying down. Last week, he was on the front page of the News again, just this time the headline read: HIGH 5 FOR A-ROD
“I think ultimately that a, Americans are forgiving, and b, they like a hero,” said Mr. Reisinger. “If you can be contrite and come back and still perform at a level that very few players can perform at, it goes a long way to rebuilding the public trust and public confidence in you. It was up to him to perform in the field. We did what we had to do off the field—and so did he. He did. But ultimately his legacy will be determined with what happens on the field, not with what happened with this incident. If he continues on his career path statistically, he may go down statistically as the greatest player in history.”
“Let’s say this is where we hoped to be,” said Mr. Sharp. “I think the goal that Jay, that he and I, had in terms of preserving this young man the opportunity he’s got to redeem himself has thus far worked out.”
“We’ve accomplished 99 percent of our goals,” said Mr. Reisinger.
What else would A-Rod have to accomplish?
“That’s up to Alex. He has to perform.”
“I think it’s human nature that people would want to rally behind someone who is really vulnerable and to give him a helping hand in so many ways,” said Ms. Roberts. “New Yorkers are famous for that.
“The perception was that [A-Rod] was down and out,” she continued. “That’s all people need to latch on to somebody, you know, if we can give him a hand and pull him out of it.”
But at the end, despite the public beating she’s taken at the hands of radio hosts and some columnists and bloggers, Ms. Roberts said she has few regrets.
In its first two weeks out, her book was No. 8 and No. 10, respectively, on the Times best-seller list.
A-Rod? Since he’s returned from the disabled list, the Yankees have won 17 of 23 games and moved into first place. Last Friday, the News, in a story headlined “From the first pitch, Alex Rodriguez has been a blast for Yankees,” concluded: “When he returned to the Yankees, Rodriguez vowed to keep distractions to a minimum, focusing all of his attention on baseball. Making such a promise is one thing, but A-Rod has managed to back it up thus far, staying out of the headlines outside the sports section.”
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