TAMPA, Fla. — The day after he arrived for spring training, Alex Rodriguez sat at an interview table and waxed about how free he felt compared with his arrival last year. No questions about whether the Yankees wanted him, about how he would perform after a yearlong drug suspension or how the fans would react to his return.
It was liberating, he said, not to carry “all this luggage with me.”
Rodriguez meant baggage, but no one needed to correct him — not when he played for an organization that was home for so many decades to the master of the malaprop, Yogi Berra. If Berra, who died in September, is no longer around to offer bons mots like “Ninety percent of this game is half mental” and “You can observe a lot just by watching,” then Rodriguez may be a worthy heir.
All that is missing from the head-scratching pearls of wisdom, Rodriguez says, is the wisdom.
“Anytime you hear anything with Yogi, it just makes you smile,” Rodriguez said. “The stuff he said was funny and it was brilliant, and in many cases it was somewhat true. I think, for me, the fact that I’m not funny and I know that maybe helps me a little bit.”
He paused to laugh.
“I’m not the funniest guy in the room, ever,” he continued. “I like laughing at myself more than anything.”
While Rodriguez has helped reshape his image to some degree with his improved behavior, the message he disseminates continues to come with the familiar verbal tics — the well-considered buzzwords of the moment (recently it has been “maniacal” and, to describe the team’s veteran leaders, “the board of trustees”), the “sch” sound at the beginning of words that begin with an “s” (the pitcher who has a nasty “schlider”) and the occasional phrases that make you think: Wait, what?
On the final weekend of last season, after the Yankees had squandered several chances to clinch home-field advantage for a wild-card playoff game, Rodriguez sought to allay concerns that his team was panicking.
“Pressure’s running out,” he said. “There’s only two games left.”
In the clubhouse, Rodriguez, now 40, happily assumes the role of awkward elder among his teammates, who are as eager to tease him as they are to pick his brain.
“We’re laughing all day in here,” said catcher Brian McCann, who did not say whether he and his teammates laughed with Rodriguez or at him.
Right fielder Carlos Beltran said: “I don’t see him as a comedian. He’s got a good sense of humor. This is a game that’s very negative, so in order to play baseball, you better have a good sense of humor.”
Few Yankees seem able to recall any instances when something Rodriguez said left them in stitches, but for that there is a substantial public record.
When Rodriguez returned to the Yankees in 2008 after the birth of his second daughter, he told reporters he had arrived at the hospital in Miami 10 minutes after she was born.
“The timing came from God,” he said. “It couldn’t have been better.”
He then explained that it really was perfect — he had passed out during the birth of his first daughter.
Often, though, as Rodriguez acknowledges, the gags are unintentional.
He once referred to Jeff Novitzky, the federal agent who investigated doping in baseball, as Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks star, and observed that returning to shortstop for an inning was like swimming in the “Miami Ocean.” He once lamented that the Yankees needed to play better “on both sides of the baseball.”
When Rodriguez thought that the Yankees wanted him to be suspended in the Biogenesis scandal so they would not have to pay him, he referred to it as “the pink elephant in the room.”
If such verbal missteps can make a person seem daft, it is not necessarily so.
John Singler, a linguistics professor emeritus at New York University, said that when people got phrases mixed up, it was a problem with the language, not with cognitive ability.
“But people who aren’t linguists tend to put them together,” Singler said.
Bob Kennedy, a linguistics lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied sports language, said that President George W. Bush was similarly underestimated, as was the former vice president Dan Quayle.
“The case can be made that George W. Bush is a smart man — two Ivy League degrees, his family background, and he becomes president,” Kennedy said. “You don’t do that if you’re not smart, but the way he spoke was clearly humorous because it made him sound simple-minded and uneducated.”
How Rodriguez’s verbal pratfalls are interpreted may be a function of how individuals view him, the linguists said. Those who still see him as a scoundrel might view these as further evidence of a buffoonish character. Those who see him as reformed might see it as another sign that Rodriguez is charmingly human.
“People take advantage of these things to highlight the attractive or unattractive traits that form their opinion of you, whether you’re a president or a Yankee,” Kennedy said. “You’re no longer a real live person, but a character in a story.”
For some, that can be a lot of luggage to carry around.