There are few 43-year-olds who fill a suit like Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, more familiarly known as A-Rod. The pinstripes he used to wear in the service of the New York Yankees have morphed into an exquisitely cut two-piece in these, the executive years of his baseball career. Mind you, this fella would look Beckham-good in a bin bag.
In the chill space at the Park Avenue apartment block he calls home – the A-Rod suite is yours for $17 million, if it takes your fancy – you are struck first by the scale and then by the charm of the man.
After a 22-year MLB career as a record-breaking shortstop and third baseman, A-Rod is a one-man franchise three years into retirement, with a fortune approaching Beckham numbers at $350m. On the day we meet he is being shadowed by Sports Illustrated as part of a day-in-the-life-of series profiling sporting influencers.
The suspicion that here is a chap who might have it all is reinforced by his pairing with fiancee Jennifer Lopez. It was J-Lo who first approached him, one thing led to another, to a diamond engagement ring the size of a helicopter landing pad, to a handwritten note of congratulations from the Obamas. The pic of A-Rod down on one knee on a Bahamas beach pulled more than seven million likes on J-Lo’s Instagram page.
This weekend ESPN’s premier broadcast voice is at the vanguard of MLB’s drive to conquer foreign territories with the first appearance in London of a regular season baseball fixture. The Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees at the London Stadium is broadly the equivalent of the Premier League rolling out Manchester United against Liverpool at Meadowlands.
The rivalry is a defining feature of the baseball landscape. Any meeting between the two is an “event”, says Rodriguez, who believed he was destined for the Red Sox in a trade from the Texas Rangers before politics took him to his native New York and the Yankees 15 years ago. “There is a contract out there with John Henry’s [Red Sox owner] signature, my signature and there’s only one missing, and that was the players’ union, who did not allow me to go over to the Red Sox because I was conceding too much money [$4m a year]. Then, a few weeks later, there was a press conference and I’m announced as a Yankee. The turn of events was wild.”
The Sox were America’s team at the turn of the 20th century, winning the World Series five times before the Yankees broke through following the capture of Babe Ruth from Boston. Within three years the Yankees won the first of their 27 World Series titles. The Sox went winless for the best part of a century, the curse of the Bambino stretching from 1918 to 2004, ironically the season A-Rod slipped through Boston’s fingers. Imagine the-party when Boston rose from 3-0 down to beat the Yankees in the post-season American League Championships, the first team to overturn a three-nil deficit in ALC history, and book that successful World Series final spot against St Louis.
On that defeat, he says: “It was the most unbelievable, worst dream you can imagine. It was crazy. I never thought that would happen, but in baseball, anything can happen.”
Media demand for London is high. The first tranche of tickets sold in hours. For the uninitiated, A-Rod offers this outline of the sport’s appeal. “Baseball is a thinking man’s game, for sure. Here we get criticised because the game is too slow. It is a flash compared to cricket. The nuance is where the game lives.”
Spectators will see a lot of balls pass the barrel. But my, when the ball comes off that sweet spot, it is a thing of wonder. Imagine Jos Buttler on the plate but six inches taller and two stones heavier. I give you right fielder Aaron Judge, who the Yankees hope to have fit and firing for the London engagement. A-Rod is impressive at 6ft 3in but even he looks up to the big men like Judge. “They could have been American football players, they are hitting baseballs like golf balls. The sound – extraordinary. How far – incredible. When you are sat among them, like I’m one of the little guys, you are like ‘holy shit’. Watch Aaron Judge hit a ball 500 feet at 5 o’clock; the anticipation that you might see that in a game is where the magic lives.”
l ESPN.co.uk and ESPN app bring fans extensive online coverage of the MLB. BT Sport brings viewers live TV coverage of the MLB all season and the London series.