MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

In the end, A-Rod's love of baseball shines

In the end, A-Rod's love of baseball shines

Alex Rodriguez choked back tears Sunday morning when he spoke of his family, especially his daughters. His emotions seemed raw and genuine, and in that way, he was vulnerable in a way we had not seen before.

"No athlete ever ends his or her career the way they want to," Rodriguez told us. "They all want to keep playing. Saying goodbye may be the hardest part of the job.

"You always think you have one more hit in you or that you can help your team win one more game. That wasn't in the cards."

As endings go, Rodriguez could not have struck a more perfect tone. He was dignified and understated. In a dozen seasons in pinstripes, this may have been the moment he most seemed like a true Yankee.

A-Rod spoke of something larger, of the Yankees and all that they stand for. He said he still wanted to contribute to the Yanks winning another World Series. Only now he would do it in a different role.

The decision to end his playing career after Friday's game against the Rays at Yankee Stadium was not his. Rodriguez was upfront about that part of the deal. That simply was the day everyone settled on after Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner engaged him in a series of conversations about the future.

The Yanks, focused on younger players, are moving on. Rodriguez is hitting .204 and riding the bench. At 41, he simply no longer fits.

A-Rod said there was never an ultimatum, that it didn't get that far. When he understood what was being said, he attempted to focus on an appropriate ending and an optimistic future.

This is the Alex Rodriguez the Yankees have seen in the 18 months since his return from a year-long suspension. He has seemed determined to do every single thing right.

Rodriguez surely knew that 18 months would not erase all the other stuff, especially the shadow of performance-enhancing drugs and the war he once waged against Major League Baseball and the Yanks.

But as he said, "One of the things I'm most proud of is I was able to mend some good relationships at every level of baseball."

Rodriguez has seemed more appreciative, more gracious. He has talked less about himself and said that all that mattered were wins and losses. A-Rod's quotes became boring in the same way that those of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were boring. If this was his way of fitting in, it worked.

On Sunday, Rodriguez seemed determined to do things the right way. When Steinbrenner proposed paying him the remainder of the roughly $27 million he's owed and inviting him to return next spring as an advisor and a Minor League instructor, he accepted.

"I was incredibly humbled and flattered that he wanted me to spend time with the next generation of Yankees," Rodriguez said. "I'm looking forward to that."

A-Rod tried hard to strike a joyful tone on a day that had to be incomprehensibly sad for him. When it was Brian Cashman's turn to speak, the Yankees' general manager placed his 2009 World Series ring on a table.

"That doesn't come along without Alex's significant contributions," Cashman said.

And then it was manager Joe Girardi's turn.

"He has a love for this game as much as any person I've ever met," Girardi said.

Girardi on A-Rod as a mentor

Rodriguez's place in baseball history will be debated forever. He made his big league debut at age 18 in 1994, and in 22 seasons since, he has done things most players would not dare to dream -- three times the American League Most Valuable Player Award winner and 14 times an All-Star.

A-Rod will also be haunted by his association with performance-enhancing drugs and questions of how much they contributed to his greatness. Someday, we may all be able to wrap our minds around PEDs and how to view the players who used them. That process is ongoing.

Rodriguez did not run from those conversations on Sunday, saying at one point, "I've been to hell and back."

"I do want to be remembered as someone madly in love with the game of baseball," he said. "I tripped and fell a lot -- and kept getting up."

As Cashman put it, "The world we live in, everybody makes mistakes. It's what you do after the fact."

After the fact, A-Rod could not have been better. He carried the greatness of the Yankees as well as any player ever has. He had a wonderful renaissance season in 2015, hitting 33 home runs and helping the Yanks get back to the postseason.

Rodriguez worked hard to patch things up with a lot of people, and in the end, he probably did. He also began a promising career in television and says he's committed to working with the Yankees' young players.

Until that time, A-Rod will shed some more tears and miss the game terribly. Here's hoping he understands that plenty of people know how hard he worked to change, and in the end, how much he contributed to the game.

Rodriguez was a joy to watch. He would do things that would bring you out of your seat, and two innings later, he would do something even more spectacular.

For that, every baseball fan owes him. We were part of the lucky generation that got to watch Alex Rodriguez play baseball. Let's hope the ovation he hears at Yankee Stadium on Friday rings in his ears forever.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.