Talking sense to the senseless: PR lessons from Alex Rodriguez’s retirement

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Posted on August 9, 2016

As much as it pains me to admit, The New York Yankees did something good. If speaking truth to power takes courage, speaking truth to delusion takes creativity. In both cases, the source of the threat determines what one needs to avoid it. With power, the threat is some kind of punishment for challenging authority. You need to be brave to speak the truth knowing it will cause some kind of repercussion. It takes incredible creativity to get facts through to the truly deluded. Instead of simply relaying information, you have to make it fit into a crazy way of looking at the world without distorting whatever makes your information true in the first place.

Last weekend, the Yankees did just that. They announced Alex Rodriguez would retire. Nay, they convinced Alex Rodriguez to retire, effective Friday, so that next year he can be a ‘special advisor’ to the team. This is quite the feat. Baseball players do not retire in August. Especially not baseball players like Alex Rodriguez. Even more so when they are four home runs away from 700 for their career and due to make 21 million dollars the next season

Rodriguez or A-Rod, needs no introduction for even lapsed baseball fans. He’s been making headlines in the sport since the mid 90s. The once-in-a-generation prospect developed into one of the best players of his era, collecting MVP awards and breaking records on his way to a World Series championship and, eventually, plenty of controversy. Over his career, Rodriguez was paid more than any other baseball player— ever—and by a wide margin. But, despite his obvious greatness, fans often consider him overpaid. His distant and occasionally controversial personality did not help either. Nor did rumors, like the infamous centaur painting.

For most of his career, Rodriguez was described — if you were being nice — as controversial. He was more often labeled narcissistic or straight-up delusional. At one time, he was the undisputed best baseball player on the planet and people were willing to overlook, or at least tolerate, his personality. But, injuries and age have taken their toll. For the past few seasons it’s been pretty clear that stepping aside is the one way Rodriguez can help his team the most.

Rodriguez reached a new low with the Biogenesis scandal. Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season for using steroids. This was actually the second time he was busted for PEDs. A 2009 Sports Illustrated story revealed Rodriguez tested positive for banned substances in 2003. At the time, the drugs were forbidden yet the league did not have an official screening or suspension policy. Rodriguez was only tested as part of a study to determine if they needed to implement harsher drug penalties, which they did. Other stars have continued being beloved or at least saw no real change in how fans responded to them after one failed test from the same era. David Ortiz and Andy Pettittie and Bartolo Colon are great examples. Even Ryan Braun is getting his image on back on track. The same can’t be said for A-Rod. The second time around, Major League Baseball was ready to make an example of him. It says something about how far they went with that example that people eventually started feeling sorry for a guy who was routinely booed in almost every stadium he visited. Even though The Yankees were very clear that they did not want him back, Rodriguez decided to play another year. Credit where credit is due, A-Rod had a mini comeback season last year and had he retired earlier, the narrative would be very different.

This year, the Yankees needed A-Rod to retire. Unfortunately, for them, consistently declining statistics, no longer being a viable everyday fielder, having to take steroids in order to mask those last two things, and getting suspended all of 2014 for being caught, (what some would call objective logic) was not enough to convince A-Rod his playing days were over. The situation was looking grim. This season was by far his worst as a professional, yet before last weekend all signs pointed to Rodriguez at least finishing the season and potentially joining the Yankees for Spring Training 2017. Then the Yankees came up with something amazing: A way to fit retiring into Rodriguez’s uniquely A-Rodian way of understanding the universe.

Watch last Sunday’s press conference. Rodriguez seems like he could pass a Turing test, hitting all the typical spots in the typical heartfelt athlete retirement speech. With over 30 years in the public eye, it’s fair to say he’s not that good of an actor, so the fact that he seems into it is probably genuine. This is not the same man who once justified using a banned substance with a disconnect that was equal parts Patrick Bateman and Sheldon Cooper. At this point in time, A-Rod isn’t retiring mid season because he’s a distraction in the clubhouse, a waste of a roster spot that could potentially give a prospect valuable big league at-bats, and simply not very good. He’s retiring now because he’s ‘accepting the end gracefully’ because it’s ‘part of being a great professional athlete’.

Now having your general manager beg you to retire mid season is probably not what most of us consider ‘accepting the end gracefully’, especially when that same general manager had been trying to get you to retire for years. Who cares? As great as A-Rod was as a player, is it the best idea for someone as notoriously hard to get along with as he is to be mentoring ‘the next generation of Yankees’? You can also question if someone with off the charts natural ability will be able to explain his process to people who are less skilled. But, the Yankees needed Rodriguez off their playing roster and they came up with an appealing offer for A-Rod that would allow him to accept a ‘graceful’ retirement. Money doesn’t matter to the Yankees like it does other teams; they still have to pay A-Rod, but his salary will no longer count against MLB’s luxury tax or be used by other superstars as an aggressive but technically within the realm of possibility number to start contract negotiations. It’s a win.

From a public relations perspective the win is even greater. Rodriguez’s last game becomes a national event. The Yankees get to do the history of baseball stuff they do so well. Since the team is in the middle of one of its worst seasons in recent memory, Friday’s game will be a much needed highlight in what looks like a depressing second half of the 2016 season. Convincing Rodriguez to retire now lets the Yankees focus their legacy machine on him for a few days, before pointing it on Mark Teixeira, their other, better behaved, superstar retiring at the end of the season. Now they get two special legacy nights in an otherwise disappointing season, when before there was only one. They also get to avoid all of the distracting press speculating about Rodriguez’s next move should he have remained active. Even just having him sit on the bench in recent weeks caused a small scene.

Thankfully, most public affairs campaigns don’t involve clients who are completely far-gone, like soon to be former Yankee Third Basemen. However, they do often require helping people confront perspectives outside of their own. One way to learn how to do that is to study extreme examples of speaking truth to delusion or talking sense to the senseless — when courses of action completely logical to the general public are explained in terms most would find crazy, in order to get a particularly removed individual back to acting like they share a consciousness with the rest of us.

Thinking about it now, Alex Rodriguez retiring on Friday makes too much sense for everyone involved. The only reason it wouldn’t have happened would have been because it involved Alex Rodriguez himself having to agree to it. Then The Yankees spoke truth to delusion. Being ‘special advisor to the next generation of Yankees’ because part of being a great player is ‘accepting the end gracefully’ was a bridge from our world to A-Rod’s. Even though those words probably mean slightly different things in each one. The Yankees made sense out of a senseless situation. They turned a potentially ugly, drawn-out issue into a much bigger and much cleaner PR win: getting Alex Rodriguez to accept a portion of his mortality, making conventional wisdom palpable for someone who built an image around defying it is something we can all learn from, even if the Yankees are teaching the lesson.

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