J. R. Moehringer spent more than 100 hours with Alex Rodriguez. He saw him in a Batman costume during a New Year’s Eve celebration with his children. He was with him on a day in New York when he met with the new Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred. And then he accompanied him on a visit to the surgeon who worked on his hip.
They had numerous intimate conversations that carried on into the night. At times, it got to be too much—for Moehringer.
“I told him, ‘Alex, I’m tired. I’ve got to go home,’” Moehringer said.
Yet despite almost unlimited access, Moehringer decided not to use one quote from Rodriguez in his riveting 12,000+-word piece on the disgraced star in the March 2 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Ironically, it all began when he sought a quote from Rodriguez for an ESPN The Magazine story he was doing on Derek Jeter, said Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winner. He used a Rodriguez quote on his teammate for that story and struck a relationship in the process. Eventually after several off-the-record lunches, Moehringer inquired if Rodriguez would be willing to be the subject of an extensive profile on the eve of his return to baseball this spring.
“It was up and down,” Moehringer said. “They pulled out for at least a month. His people didn’t want him to do it. But he overruled them. He liked where we were going [from their conversations].”
Moehringer embarked on the project full-time in December. He says he was “stunned” by the volume of access.
“I don’t know if I had that kind of access to [Andre Agassi],” said Moehringer, who assisted the tennis star in writing his bestselling autobiography, “Open.” “It was a gradual process. It probably never would have happened if I just said, ‘Let’s go,’ and hit [the record button].”
Moehringer said he often tried to be “invisible,” but it was impossible on one occasion. Rodriguez allowed him to come along when he drove his children to school. The stranger in the front seat didn’t go over well.
“This is the first time they had someone else in the car with them (on the drive to school),” Moehringer said. “The youngest daughter was displeased that I broke the sanctity of this drive. This was their time.”
Moehringer decided not to include that drive in his piece; it didn’t fit. Obviously, he had plenty of other material.
There were times Moehringer did have to convince to Rodriguez to write about certain moments he observed. For instance, the New Year’s Eve party was supposed to be off the record. However, when Rodriguez donned a Batman costume to join in with his daughter’s friends, Moehringer told him that had to be included.
“Later, I said, ‘Alex, I just believe that needs to be in the story,’” Moehringer said.
Moehringer also had to get Rodriguez to see the point of using an anecdote about him attending the first day of a marketing class at the University of Miami. He kicks off the piece by writing about the surreal scene as the other students suddenly realize who is sitting among them.
The college theme is an important part of the story as Rodriguez, who turned professional out of high school, is obsessed that he missed out on higher education.
“His feelings about college are with him constantly,” Moehringer said. “Equally stunning to me, he was unaware by how much he was defined by this intellectual insecurity. He said, ‘Why does anyone care about that?’ I had to bring him around to my way of seeing the story.”
With a deadline looming, Moehringer had to pull it all together. Early on, he and his ESPN Magazine editor Raina Kelley came to an important decision; they would not use any direct quotes from Rodriguez.
After his opening passage about the Miami class, Moehringer explains his decision to readers, saying Rodriguez is “a proven liar.” He writes:
“Take a sentence from Rodriguez, set it between two quotation marks and watch what happens; it curdles like year-old milk. The words become unstable, unusable, weirdly ironic. It’s not a choice, to quote or not to quote, it’s simple science, obeisance to strict natural laws, to the crazy alchemy between his damaged credibility and basic punctuation. Quoting Rodriguez is like dropping a Mento into a Diet Coke. It makes a big whoosh, everyone gets excited, for about three seconds, and then it’s just a mess, and you wonder what’s been accomplished, besides some stickiness, and maybe a permanent stain.”
In an interview, Moehringer said he thought quotes from Rodriguez would detract from what he was trying to accomplish in the story. He worried that other news outlets would miss the big picture by simply running the quotes much like “pulling guts from a fish and then discarding the fish.”
“I had this fear of people being alienated by the quotes,” Moehringer said. “Instead of drawing people in, it would push people away. It would be a shame if nobody saw what he was trying to do with his life because they were turned off by quotes that sound canned, pat or hopelessly garbled…I felt he is something more than the sum of what he said. I thought there was a story other than his words.”
Moehringer later added, “You have to tell the reader who he is. There are no illusions. You try to set the terms where the reader will say, ‘OK, I’m in.’…If ever you could make a case to do a profile without using quotes, this is the guy.”
It is a short list of truly elite writers who could pull it off like Moehringer. The story does show another side of Rodriguez. Instead of being defiant and self-obsessed, he comes across as a person who is trying to come to terms with the flaws that led to his downfall.
“He seemed so lost,” Moehringer said. “He was trying to figure out how he had fallen to that depth and how he could become a better person.”
Moehringer did laud Rodriguez for providing him with the access, which potentially “opens the door to chaos.” By contrast, Jeter only gave him a 25-minute interview for that story. Moehringer thinks Rodriguez consented because the experience gave him a chance to learn about himself.
Moehringer said he expects to visit again soon with Rodriguez. He knows there are aspects of the story that will make him cringe.
Ultimately, though, Moehringer contends it doesn’t matter if Rodriguez liked the story.
“What’s important is for the person to feel as if he is being treated fairly,” Moehringer said. “The person trusted you with the story. You want to feel like you got a fair hearing. You were seen. You were heard.”
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
John Feinstein is the latest subject of the Povich Center’s “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series.
Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association, clarifies her comments regarding the player-reporter relationship to Sarah Kogod of SB Nation.
Jon Weisman at Dodger Insider has interesting insights into the player-reporter relationship in the locker room.
Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the late Bryan Burwell will be the latest inductees into the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
Former Los Angeles Times baseball writer Ross Newhan writes on his blog about his drinking issues on the beat in light in the latest developments with Josh Hamilton.
Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report.