Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz have been opponents for years, and on the Saturday morning of Game 2 of the ALCS between the Yankees and the Astros, they’re in a new, if unwitting, competition. At the Fox Sports studios in Los Angeles, three-fifths of the on-air talent from the MLB on Fox show sit around a conference table before a pregame production meeting, all casually dressed and at ease: Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas in a black short-sleeved button down; Mets great Keith Hernandez in a red polo, khaki shorts, and flip-flops; and host Kevin Burkhardt in a green Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt featuring Tecmo Bowl graphics. The only guys still missing are Rodriguez and Ortiz, the show’s biggest names and oddest couple.
Rodriguez, the 14-time All-Star covering his third World Series as a studio analyst for Fox, which will broadcast all of this year’s games, is notoriously scrupulous and fanatical, often arriving to the studio early, armed with copious notes. In 2015, when Fox tapped him to join its team for something of a pre-retirement test run after the Yankees’ elimination from the playoffs, Rodriguez approached the gig with the same fastidious preparation that he displayed in the Yankees clubhouse.
He asked Burkhardt if he wouldn’t mind coming in a little early to practice and show him the ropes. “He wanted to know how the cameras work and all that stuff,” Burkhardt says. “I was blown away. He’s asking a million good questions about this and that. He had a notebook filled with shit.” Throughout his Yankees career, Rodriguez used to go home after games, watch the rebroadcasts on TV, then find YES Network play-by-play guy Michael Kay in the clubhouse the next day to compliment his calls, Kay says. (“Never,” he adds when asked whether other players have sought him out after watching his work so closely.)
This year, between the end of the ALDS and the start of the ALCS, Rodriguez texted MLB on Fox coordinating producer Bardia Shah-Rais first thing in the morning to say he couldn’t believe they had the day off, a communique that made Shah-Rais laugh: Shouldn’t A-Rod, who sits at the helm of a holding company called A-Rod Corp, is involved in productions on three different broadcast networks, and is dating Jennifer Lopez, have something better to do? “He’s out of his mind,” Shah-Rais says. “I’m like, ‘You know, you have a great girlfriend, go hang out with her. Go to the gym. Don’t come to the studio!’”
Ortiz, on the other hand, is freewheeling and take-me-as-I-am, the type of guy who, a couple of weeks ago, got turned around somewhere inside the Fox building and wound up “back by the loading docks,” says Shah-Rais. The producer found the former Red Sox behemoth, who retired at the end of the 2016 season, ambling around and hollering “Yo! Help! Lost!” at no one in particular. “Like a little kid at a mall,” Shah-Rais adds. It’s understandable that Ortiz might take a wrong turn here or there: He and Hernandez joined the Sports Emmy–winning MLB on Fox only at the start of October, following the firing of Pete Rose amid allegations that he had sex with an underage girl in the 1970s.
Unlike longtime SNY contributor Hernandez, Ortiz is a relative broadcasting newbie, but he’s in the right place on a set full of heavyweight MLB veterans and on a network that encourages big personalities. The four former players now on the panel recorded more than 10,000 hits, 1,920 of them home runs, and won seven World Series rings. (Rodriguez polishing and admiring his ring has become a running gag on the show, with Ortiz reminding him that he has three sitting around in a safe.) Looming just as large as all of their MLB accomplishments, however, is a more singular ongoing achievement: redemption for Rodriguez, who in a few years has gone from punch line to pundit, from embattled to engaging, from disgraced to disarming.
Ever since his widely lauded 2015 debut on Fox, which followed a satisfying 33-home-run comeback season on the field with the Yankees, Rodriguez has parlayed his earnest and unrivaled baseball nerdery into an ambitious multi-network, multi-platform journey toward a new kind of success. He was a guest investor on the hit ABC show Shark Tank. He has developed, with Hall of Fame NFL player turned media maven Michael Strahan, an upcoming reality show for CNBC about athletes and their finances called Back in the Game. His A-Rod Corp investments range from real estate to fitness centers to esports. And he is the star of his own highly addictive and appealingly overproduced Instagram feed, with its sun-soaked jogging videos and its charming family photos.
Not bad for a guy who in 2014 served a one-year MLB suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, and who, not long before that, saw his own Yankees GM describe him to the media as a guy who “should just shut the fuck up.” These days, there are a lot of people — including the ones waiting for this production meeting to begin — interested in what Rodriguez has to say.
In the Fox Sports conference room, a production assistant, carrying a coffee caddy that resembles something a soda vendor would wear around his neck at a ballpark, takes drink orders.
Hernandez, whose 64th birthday falls on the day of ALCS Game 6, an occasion that the studio team honors by swiping him in the face with some cake on TV, leans back in his chair and muses idly about life as if he’s back in the Mets broadcast booth during an August rain delay. He says that while he didn’t get rattled when he turned 40, or even 50, reaching 60 a few years ago hit him hard. “’Cause in 20 years, I’ll be 80,” he explains. “Living on borrowed time. I wanna stay!”
To celebrate Keith Hernandez's birthday, the Fox crew showed him serving up a bomb before serving him some cake pic.twitter.com/hFe7xHeCfg— Ghoul Fun dies (@goodfundies) October 21, 2017
This pleasant chat about mortality is interrupted when Ortiz strolls past the room’s glass walls and through the doorway as if he’s Big Papi striding to the Fenway plate. In lieu of a Red Sox uniform is head-to-toe studded black denim; in lieu of cleats are Philipp Plein shoes covered in small gold spikes and resembling armored hedgehogs. And in lieu of the roar of the Fenway crowd is an enthusiastic outburst of a welcome by his admiring, shit-talking new colleagues.
“There he is!” announces Shah-Rais. “You got a tip on a snow storm or something?” says Hernandez. “You ride a motorcycle in today?” asks Shah-Rais. Ortiz takes off his sunglasses and surveys the room, his face triumphant. The first thing he says: “Where A-Rod?!” Less than a minute later, here is A-Rod, dressed in a dark-gray half-zip sweater and already holding up his iPhone in preemptive protest as he walks in the door. The clock on the wall may say 10:02, but his device informs him otherwise: “The official time right here!” Rodriguez says, and it’s hard to quibble with a man whose internal clock has long been set to “all baseball, all the time.”
When Rodriguez retired from MLB in 2016, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, who now works as a reporter on the Fox MLB broadcast, shared one of his favorite A-Rod stories. Kay brings up the anecdote, too: When Rodriguez was a young Seattle Mariner, he’d sometimes visit Derek Jeter’s apartment after games against the Yankees in New York, and was flummoxed one night when he found out that Jeter didn’t subscribe to the baseball package that would allow him to watch the West Coast games on TV. Watching baseball after playing baseball just wasn’t a habit of Jeter’s, the way it was for Rodriguez, who has now added talking baseball to the mix.
In the postgame show after Game 1 of the ALCS, Rodriguez had demonstrated why he has become a valuable commodity in the vast world of sports talk and beyond. After Yankees first baseman Greg Bird was narrowly tagged out at the plate following a run from second base, Rodriguez pointed out that Bird’s issue wasn’t so much foot speed as anticipation. Had he taken a smarter lead off second, Rodriguez explained, Bird’s arguably sloppy rounding of third base would not have been an issue. Combined with useful footage from behind the plate and a lightbox visual effect, the analysis was thoughtful, actionable, and idiosyncratic, a demonstration of the MLB on Fox show at its best.
"The error was not speed, the error was lack of anticipation."- @AROD on Greg Bird being out at the plate. https://t.co/tDD11iOoZw— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 14, 2017
“Suzyn said that got a lot of play back in New York,” Rodriguez tells the group, referring to longtime Yankees analyst Suzyn Waldman, with whom he has already corresponded since Game 1. He moves on to discussing MLB Network’s coverage of the play when Shah-Rais interrupts.
“So let me get this straight,” the producer says. “You went home last night to Jen, and then you watched MLB Network?” Rodriguez nods, serious but smiling. “Is J.Lo feeling neglected?” asks Hernandez. “No, she likes it,” Rodriguez insists. “She’s a huge Yankees fan.”
Later that day, Rodriguez is scrambling: He has just accidentally hung up on that huge Yankees fan. Rodriguez has been dating Lopez, to the great delight of the people tasked with coming up with celebrity couple nicknames, since earlier this year. And while he has been linked to, and even fed popcorn by, many a leading lady throughout his life, he seems particularly starry-eyed over J.Lo: He brings her up in conversation often; he FaceTimes her with frequency, and he regards her with something approaching awe. (According to the tabloids, the pair is moving in together.)
He and Lopez, along with her ex-husband Marc Anthony, have been planning a star-studded telethon and concert that will take place later that night to raise funds for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Five networks are involved: Rodriguez says NBC gave the effort, called #SomosUnaVoz, $1.8 million in production costs and built a big set for the concert; VH1 and MTV are in, and both Telemundo and its rival Univision are airing it — “for the first time together,” he says, amazed. “Which is, like, Yankees and Red Sox.” Rodriguez says he hopes to raise $20 million in the event; the final tally winds up being $35 million.
As he sits in the “Avocado Room” inside the Fox Sports studio, where the guys gather to watch Game 2, he FaceTimes with Lopez and asks how rehearsals are going. “Hi, Papi,” Lopez says. “I miss you! It’s going amazing, it’s going great.” He points the phone around the table and tells everyone to say hello. The two coo at one another for a little while, and then he says, “Te quiero, mami,” and hangs up as she’s in the middle of speaking.
“I always do that!” he says, chastising himself, already calling her back to apologize. “Such a quick trigger. She gets so mad. I do that all the time. I have the quickest trigger.”
She picks up. “Quick trigger!” she says, not seeming mad. “Quick trigger finger,” he repeats, beaming. “I was just trying to ask you, are they winning?” Lopez says, meaning the Yankees. He tells her it just started, they exchange some more te quieros, and he hangs up. “We’ve had literally zero sleep these last two weeks, trying to put this together,” he says. “It’s been crazy.”
What’s also been crazy is the full 360 in public perception that Rodriguez has experienced in his lifetime. As a high school prospect, his combination of skill and baseball obsession was such that scouts struggled to find any fault with his game. He was only 18 when he played his first big league games with the Mariners, who drafted him first overall, and by age 20 was already an All-Star. That same season, The New York Times described him as a “polite young prodigy.” But when he signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers he drew rancor not just from Seattle, but from aggrieved sports fans in general who took issue with the contract, at the time the largest in sports history. It didn’t help that, in his three years in Texas, the Rangers never broke .500. A 2004 trade to the Yankees further accelerated his heel turn from first overall draft pick to Public Enemy No. 1.
As a Yankee, Rodriguez was a two-time MVP who at one point batted in 100 or more runs for seven straight seasons and was a World Series champion in 2009. But he also butted heads with manager Joe Torre, announced during the 2007 World Series that he planned to opt out of his contract (the Yankees weren’t playing, but the Red Sox were) and existed under near-constant scrutiny when it came to his possible involvement with performance enhancers. After issuing a denial on 60 Minutes in 2007, he was outed in a February 2009 Sports Illustrated report and, days later, publicly admitted to taking steroids during a three-year span with the Rangers. In 2013, when he was one of 13 players suspended by MLB in the Biogenesis scandal, Rodriguez hit such a low point that, as he recently told Joe Buck on the interview show Undeniable, he laid in bed and cried.
The Yankees, who had signed Rodriguez to a $275 million, 10-year deal in 2007, began seeking loopholes in his contract, including a nitpicky investigation into whether they could get out of paying some $30 million in performance bonuses. When he returned during spring training in 2015, a conspiracy theory developed among Yankees observers that the team Twitter feed was purposely freezing him out. “I think there was a poll,” Rodriguez says, “where 95 percent thought I wouldn’t make the team. I ended up making the team.”
Before all of this — the rise and the fall of the prodigy and the pariah — Rodriguez was just a 13-year-old kid down in Florida intent on ambushing Hernandez. Because Mets games were broadcast on the “superstation” WOR, Rodriguez could watch the 1980s teams even a thousand-plus miles from Shea Stadium. “Keith was my favorite player,” he says. “Tim McCarver was my favorite broadcaster, doing play-by-play with Ralph Kiner.” When Hernandez was sent down to Rodriguez’s neck of the woods to rehab an injury at Florida International University, Rodriguez found out about it and begged his mother to let him try to meet the Met. “I wasn’t harassing him, but I was definitely stalking him,” Rodriguez says. “I was there three hours early. I had a Keith Hernandez ball, and a card I wanted to get signed, and the bus pulled up, and I was, like, in position behind a tree.”
As Rodriguez tells it, an FIU employee “was generous enough to ask Keith’s permission, and they actually let me visit the dugout. I remember him sitting there, and I remember his arms and his forearms were so strong, and I said, ‘Mr. Hernandez, can I get this signed?’ and he was so nice to me.”
Hernandez remembers the interaction with slightly less precision. “Another kid that’s supposed to be great,” he recalls being told, then rehashes the conversation. “‘Hey, how are you, da-da-da-da, good luck, work hard, go get ’em. Nice to see you. Bye.’” He laughs. “Little did I know he’d have 700 home runs later, right?” (Rodriguez finished his MLB career with 696, fourth most all time.) Nor could Hernandez anticipate that he’d one day be sitting on the same panel with that starstruck-kid-cum-superstar as part of one of the most vibrant blocks of sports programming on television.
An ideal sports studio show requires strong personalities, seamless interaction, and analysis that adds value beyond just narration of highlights as they flash by. Get too wonky and you risk alienating casual viewers; stay too basic and the diehards will tune out. Last postseason on Fox, Burkhardt, Thomas, Rodriguez, and Rose walked this line brilliantly on their way to their Sports Emmy for an Outstanding Studio Show — Limited Run. “There’s a million studio shows,” says John Entz, Fox Sports’ president of production, “and you try to get the chemistry right, and it’s really hard to do. Last year we felt like we actually hit an amazing peak with the crew.”
One of the most universally beloved segments from last postseason’s program came when the guys were just milling around, holding bats and shooting the breeze, near the home plate built on the set for baseball demonstrations. They weren’t trying to record a scripted bit, but Rodriguez, always genuinely curious when it comes to anything baseball-related, started asking Rose about the all-time hits leader’s strategy. It was mesmerizing stuff. Here were these true baseball greats, talking shop as if they were Wall Streeters pantomiming golf swings in their cubicles. It felt like watching gearheads peer inside an engine, or hearing musicians tool around in a studio session.
Fox has built its brand around this kind of sportsy whimsy by design; Entz points out that the man who started Fox Sports, David Hill, came from Australia “with basically no conventional sports or American TV ideas; his idea was to turn everything upside down. That was the goal from the beginning, and that’s where we still are today.” MLB on Fox shares a similar anything-goes authenticity as other programs like Inside the NBA on TNT and College GameDay on ESPN.
“A lot of times what happens with athletes who become analysts,” Entz says, “is they don’t realize right away what is the most interesting part of what they’re thinking. They may think something is just second nature, but in reality it’s fascinating to someone at home.” To paraphrase Good Will Hunting, some people look at a piano and see Mozart where others just see “Chopsticks.” (In Rodriguez’s case, it’s looking at baseball swings and seeing carnival rides.) The hard part, Shah-Rais says, is finagling the looseness and candor of these moments into the brightly lit constraints of studio segments.
Fox could probably make good money by airing the show’s pregame production meetings unfiltered to premium subscribers for large sums. Before Game 2, a big discussion point is José Altuve: How to pitch him? “I’d let Altuve beat me,” Ortiz says to the room. “Altuve fucking hits, man. But here’s the thing: If you let Altuve get a hit, or you walk him, you’re in the same shape. He’s gonna steal second. So let him fight, let the guys on the field play defense.”
“The Yankees should have pitched him like a dangerous three, four power hitter, like the stars of the game,” Thomas says.
When Rodriguez speaks, it almost seems as if he’s already practiced his take this morning in the mirror. “You have to make every pitch as if it’s 0–2,” he says. “Take your best pitch. Dare him to walk. What I mean by that is” — Rodriguez says “what I mean by that” a lot — “he’s hitting .579 this postseason. He has four walks, two intentional. He’s only fucking walked twice! That’s embarrassing! Dare him to walk. What do I mean by that? At 3-and-2, throw a slider in the dirt. Let him get his ego involved because he feels so good that he’s not going to lay off a slider. And if he does? God bless him. Let him go to first base.”
“It’s my understanding,” Hernandez says, looking over his glasses professorially, “that he hasn’t got an ego. He’s a pretty humble kid.”
“I don’t mean in life,” Rodriguez says. “I mean ego because he’s hitting and feeling so great.”
“I think he’s so disciplined that I think he’ll take a walk,” Hernandez says. “He can be patient because [Carlos] Correa is right behind him.”
Here Anthony Masterson, the MLB on Fox researcher whom Shah-Rais calls Human Siri, interjects. “He’s incredibly aggressive,” he says. “He’s got more swings on the first pitch than all of baseball!”
“If you look at metrics,” Rodriguez concludes, “there’s no way a guy who is hitting .579 this postseason should have two walks. If that was Papi? Or Big Hurt? They would have, what, 12 or 14 walks.”
“This is good, guys,” says Jonathan Kaplan, one of the show’s producers. “Put that in.”
Satisfied with the direction of the Altuve conversation, the gang moves on to talking about Yankees pitcher Luis Severino, that night’s starter. “When he’s on, he’s electric,” Hernandez says. “As good as it gets. He could beat the ’27 Yankees.”
“Keith,” Burkhardt says, “how were they when you played? The ’27 Yankees?” Over the roomful of laughter, Hernandez doesn’t miss a beat. “They didn’t like the changeup,” he deadpans.
Burkhardt, the show’s host, also grew up as a Mets fan; he spent his summers floating in his family’s above-ground backyard pool in northern New Jersey and listening to Bob Murphy’s nasal narration on WFAN. After struggling through various low-level media gigs — and at one point hawking used Cadillacs at the Jersey Shore to pay the bills — Burkhardt got a break with WFAN, and later joined SNY, where he got to know Hernandez closely, and fondly, as part of the Mets coverage team. At Fox, Burkhardt’s roles include calling NFL games and serving as the MLB on Fox host, where he juggles an enormous amount of responsibility: He has to pay attention to the teleprompter, manage the precise timing of throws to commercial breaks, save anyone who starts to flounder, and make sure all four analysts get their turns to speak. The words his teammates use to describe him include “quarterback,” “point guard,” “unicorn,” and “maestro.”
“He’s the Leonard Bernstein,” says Hernandez, referring to the former conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Hernandez is well known for these sorts of Trivial Pursuit references, as well as for his mustache, his ongoing royalties from playing himself on Seinfeld, and his stories about chilling at the late, great NYC see-and-be-seen eatery Elaine’s or about how, as a player on the beloved late-’80s Mets, he smoked at least a pack a game — two if the stakes were high. After retiring from baseball, Hernandez eschewed the game for awhile. He admits that he missed a lot of Thomas’s career, for example, because it came during a post-retirement period in which he watched no baseball whatsoever, preferring to roam Central Park at dusk, his favorite time of day, and take advantage of cocktail hour.
Thomas, like Burkhardt, has been on MLB on Fox since 2014. (He has also worked on Chicago White Sox broadcasts for Comcast SportsNet Chicago over the years.) He is a self-described “chameleon” who doesn’t jockey for attention but who knows when to speak up with calm conviction, or when to use video archives of his near-perfect at-bats to demonstrate a point, as he did during the divisional series with a hands-on comparison between his own swing and that of the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper. “You can tell people something,” Thomas says he’s learned over the years, particularly from Shah-Rais, “but they also need to know why.” He is identified during introductions as “Hall of Famer Frank Thomas,” and is the show’s lone panelist to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Hernandez dropped off the ballot in 2004 after receiving votes from less than 5 percent of writers; knocks against him include his lack of longevity and his 1986 suspension for recreational drug use. (The suspension was commuted in exchange for submitting to drug tests and tithing to anti-drug programs.) Rodriguez is an unquestionable Hall of Fame–caliber player, but his unlikely place in the hall will depend on whether its voters one day decide to address the PED era in a manner other than outright exclusion. Even Ortiz, whose Cooperstown chances are better, exists on the periphery of this conversation. In 2014, Rodriguez’s lawyer made PED-related comments that seemed to allude to Ortiz; in 2015, Ortiz retorted that Rodriguez’s great season was a sign of the Yankee “playing the game the right way now, as far as we know.” But on the Fox show, the two players seem to have moved well past any lingering tension.
When they’re prepping on set, Rodriguez routinely talks to Ortiz in Spanish, hoping to “make him more comfortable.” It was only two years ago that Rodriguez was begging Burkhardt to show him the ropes, and now here he is — “the veteran,” Ortiz says. “Everyone loves Papi,” says Rodriguez. “Yankees fans are like, ‘He kills us, but I love him!’ I’m like, what does that mean?” (Indeed, even a woman in the Fox control room who runs the teleprompter and is rocking secret pinstripes beneath her work clothes confesses that Ortiz is a longtime favorite.) “Red Sox fans?” continues A-Rod. “They hate me, and some hate me more, and some more.”
The relationship between Rodriguez and Ortiz goes back — way, way back. In 1996, when Rodriguez was a young pup with the Mariners and Ortiz was a prospect in the Seattle system playing in Appleton, Wisconsin, for a minor league team called the Timber Rattlers, the two competed head-to-head, in a sense, when a rained-out exhibition game between the Mariners and their minor league affiliate instead became an impromptu home run derby in which Ortiz smashed seven first-round dingers and left the major leaguers stunned. “Against all those beasts: A-Rod, Griffey,” Ortiz recalls proudly. (Those beasts hit eight homers between the two of them.)
It may have been a lark, but it was a preview of the way Ortiz would come to make enormous plays when all eyes were on him, the way he did against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS to spark the Boston comeback from down 3–0 and ultimately break the Red Sox World Series curse.
“Some people are born for the spotlight,” says Rodriguez, who as a Texas Ranger in the early aughts “pleaded hard” with ownership and management to acquire Ortiz. “I really feel like the clutch gene exists. … Unfortunately, I witnessed it.”
Back in the control room, as a clock ticks down the minutes until they’re live for the Game 2 pregame show, Shah-Rais looks like Dr. Claw 2.0, sitting at the helm of a room full of screens. As the familiar Fox music rolls in to start the show, Shah-Rais sounds like an infielder chattering at his teammates. “Take your time,” he says. “We’re good. Let’s fucking knock it out. Good shit on ’Tuve, aight?” The live segment is understandably a bit more stilted and less profane than the conference room discussion had been, but to viewers, it’s still a colorful, raucous time — very Fox Sports.
“Good shit, Frank!” yells Shah-Rais. “Very good, David, you’re turning into a fucking analyst!” Shah-Rais spends a fair amount of time encouraging Ortiz, the broadcast rookie: “That was perfect, man,” he says into his earpiece at one point. “Just the way we talked about in the meeting. Just tell me if you need anything. Gimme a little cha-cha-cha.” On set, Ortiz dances.
What's it like facing Clayton Kershaw?@AROD & @davidortiz break it down. #TalkinBall pic.twitter.com/Bccf8Y4PpS— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 15, 2017
With the live segment complete, the guys remain on set to chat about Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw for a digital bonus feature. Rodriguez grills Ortiz at length about what it was like to play against him, then steps up to the plate to demonstrate his own assessment. Thomas adds that of all of today’s pitchers, Kershaw is the one that he would most want to face, just to know firsthand what makes him great. It’s enough to make one wish that Fox’s technology extended to teleportation.
As they walk off the set, Rodriguez gets some information on his earpiece from Human Siri. “We just got some notes in,” Rodriguez says to Ortiz, “and they say you never faced Kershaw. Was that all made up?” Ortiz smiles. “Actually, it was an exhibition game,” he cheerfully admits. “My bad!”
The banter is fantastic, with a robust ratio of information to informality. If there’s a knock against the MLB on Fox crew, it’s that this isn’t always the case, that they sometimes have a little too much fun out there. (The panel also lacks a pitcher’s perspective.) During the ALDS, on his WFAN radio show, Mike Francesa raised this complaint, describing the show after Game 3 as being beset by “ridiculous, hideous laughter.” When Burkhardt breaks this news to the group, it sets off a round of pretty decent Mikey impressions. A few days before the World Series begins, the New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman adds to this chorus, in a grumpy column arguing that Ortiz and his outsized personality is in danger of stealing the show.
Raissman may have a point that Thomas, in particular, has at times unfairly borne the brunt of Ortiz’s increased airtime. (The Big Hurt seemed a tiny bit miffed following Game 6, when there was no time for him to ask triumphant Astros ace Justin Verlander a question after Ortiz hogged the mic.) But many fans, particularly the casual ones who tune in for the playoffs, love the interactions like Rodriguez draping a Yankees jacket over Ortiz, who reacts as if he’s had snakes dropped down his back. And anyway, with both the Yankees and Red Sox now eliminated, there’s less room or need for those homer moments. Ortiz has his comical bits, but he also has fascinating insights on opposing pitchers like CC Sabathia, or on what a hitter sees as he stands at the plate.
What will CC Sabathia give the Yankees tonight?@AROD, @davidortiz & @TheBigHurt_35 break it down. https://t.co/v6o4bTDLKG— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 21, 2017
One of the most illuminating recurring segments on the postgame show is when the panelists take turns asking live questions to an athlete or manager. The questions are pointed and educated, the answers are expansive in a way that clubhouse scrums and press conferences rarely are, and it’s a delight to see typically stone-faced baseball players break into giddy grins when they hear, “Wassup, this is Papi!”
Quirks like Ortiz dancing or the crew reacting to vintage clips of, say, Thomas sporting pleated pants and a flat top on Letterman in 1994 may not always please the media critics, but they are great foils for Rodriguez’s encyclopedic, brow-furrowed dorkiness. In the same conversation in which the guys rib Ortiz for fabulizing his history with Kershaw, Rodriguez brings up a former pitcher named Sid Fernandez, rattling off an extremely specific memory of facing him during Sunday Night Baseball, years ago.
“Sunday Night Baseball,” Shah-Rais mutters, looking dumbfounded in the control room. “How the fuck does he remember that? I don’t remember last week.”
When Rodriguez returned to the Yankees for the 2015 season — the year many people thought he might not even make the team out of spring training — he began winning over, with every home run, the fans who thought the Yankees were acting a little bit childish about the whole thing. Rodriguez recalls his 2015 season as “magical … probably the most rewarding season of my life.” The Yankees made the playoffs, and when they were eliminated he heard from a few folks at Fox who were interested in having him do some broadcasting work during the World Series. “I was surprised they offered me the opportunity,” he says. “I was super nervous because it was the Mets, and I’m like — I’m gonna go to Queens and they’re gonna rip me a new one.”
Instead, baseball fans took almost immediately to his, er, inside-baseball analysis and his ability to communicate high-level concepts in a clear and compelling way. Rodriguez says he tries to present information in the manner of Warren Buffett, a hero of his who is able to distill high-level investing concepts into plainspoken language. “I think the bar was so low,” Rodriguez says of public expectations for him, “that even if I shot a bogey, I think it would have played like a birdie.”
Entz says it’s not just that, though: Rodriguez displayed a humility and humanity that had often seemed absent before. “One thing he and I have talked a lot about,” Entz says, “is he’s aware of what his reputation was. He’s not afraid to make fun of it. And being self-deprecating goes a long way with viewers, and he’s realized that.”
The studio crew slouches in leather chairs in front of a wall of televisions. Matt Leinart and Dave Wannstedt from Fox’s college football studio crew, which is on duty today, too, wander in and out, chatting about topics ranging from sociology degrees to “huntin’ rattlesnakes.” Hernandez, as he always does, keeps score on a large, thick piece of paper. At one point Ortiz briefly dozes off, and Kaplan snaps a pic. (“We all have our naps,” Thomas says.) Rodriguez, in casual mode — his suspenders pulled down off his arms — confers with producer Royce Dickerson about looking up stats on average velocity between bases.
Shah-Rais says to Ortiz: “Be honest: After the World Series ends, are we ever gonna talk again? Can we go on vacation? I want to get you on a waterslide.” (Ortiz’s response: “Hell no.”) To Rodriguez, who is now looking at his phone, Shah-Rais says: “Are you posting a photo? You Instagram more than a 12-year-old girl.” He is correct: The @arod Instagram account displays a deep understanding of pensive selfies and the art of staged “candid shots” self-effacingly hashtagged #nerd that typically only plugged-in tweens possess.
In the eighth inning, the panelists retreat back into the studio so that they’re ready in case the game wraps up quickly. Makeup artists and microphone technicians flutter around, powdering and clipping, and it’s oddly quiet as everyone watches the final innings. “One swing could end it,” stage manager Karen Wilkens, whose job involves herding former major leaguers like cats, reminds the room. In the bottom of the ninth, Altuve gets a first-pitch hit off Aroldis Chapman and then scores the winning run from first base following a hit by Correa. As the studio crew watches this unfold, they could be any ol’ group of dudes watching a baseball game on TV: They lean forward, they narrate iteratively — “Ohhh he DROPPED it!” Hernandez yells — and they clap and shake their heads. Then, just as quickly, they go into TV mode, praising Verlander and Altuve, expressing growing concerns about Aaron Judge’s slump, and making fun of Ortiz and Rodriguez in equal measure. The idle banter, the adrenaline of live TV, the viewers tuned in at home — for the former players, this new gig has a few things in common with the last.
About 10 days after broadcasting his first World Series, Rodriguez had an eye-opening experience in a restaurant bathroom in the Village in New York that has stuck with him ever since. “You can always kind of feel when, like, seven people get up at the same time to follow you in the bathroom,” he says. “I was like, ‘OK, this is weird.’ I’m in the restroom and I’m like, these guys all want to go to the bathroom? There’s like eight of us, and four [urinals]. And they’re like, can we take pictures?
“And I’m like, ‘Wow, they really like my 33 home runs — I’m back!’ And then not one guy said anything about my season. They talked about, like, ‘That point you made about Matt Harvey, and sabermetrics, and the north and south, and quadrants, and the spin rate!’ And I’m like, ‘These guys are quoting me!’ I’ve never been quoted by cool fans. That reaction was so surprising — it was my first wake-up moment about how powerful the medium of television is.”
Earlier that year, J.R. Moehringer spent triple-digit hours with Rodriguez for ESPN The Magazine and then wrote his piece without ever quoting his subject. His logic was that too many of the things that came out of Rodriguez’s mouth were either overly managed or possibly lies. “If he hopes to recapture the public trust, to repair his image,” Moehringer wrote, “it will be through actions, not words.” As it turns out, though, the winning combination has actually been both.
“It’s really empowering when you have an opportunity to speak directly to the consumer for the entire month every night without a broker telling your story,” Rodriguez says as he sits in the Avocado Room, one eye focused on Game 2. “I don’t know if anyone knew who I was, even though they knew who I was for 20-plus years.”