In politics, as in sports, the public’s memory is short and disposition is forgiving - if you follow the Three H’s

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

Forgiveness is real, and those who truly repent with a sincere heart can get a fresh beginning.  That’s part of the message Pope Francis is sending in proclaiming to the world’s Roman Catholics a “Year of Mercy.”  

Mercy, you might ask?  In this manifestly unmerciful digital age?   How quaint.  One glance at your Twitter feed should be enough to remind you that “media mercy” is quite the oxymoron.  In the social cloud, it’s not your good deeds, but your mistakes and ill-chosen words and pictures that now have eternal life.  They will survive in routers and on servers, forever.   

There is no hope; no second act.  No redemption.  Or is there?  

A public figure comes to mind who’s a household name here in New York.  He’s been around for a long time, and boasts a record of high-profile accomplishment in the world’s media capital.  Reporters who covered him for years have long noted the ostentatious displays of wealth, the serial romantic relationships, the self-referential nature of his public and private boasts, and how frequently he has stumbled on the bunched-up rug of his own ego.  

No, I don’t mean HIM.  

I mean Alex Rodriguez.  

Not long ago,Yankees fans were talking in the past tense about what had looked like a sure-fire Hall of Fame career for A-Rod.  He was finished: suspended for the entire 2014 season for lying about his use of performance enhancing drugs.  He then made matters worse by aggressively fighting his suspension with a team of lawyers, suing both Major League Baseball and the players’ union.   His id, and his pride, both appeared to be spinning out of control.  He was clueless.

“He was shunned by the marketing and endorsement world a year ago,” writes USA Today Sports columnist Bob Nightengale.  

“Now,” Nightengale adds, “the phone won’t stop ringing.”  

The Yankees, who barely acknowledged A-Rod’s tying Willie Mays on the all-time home run list last year, have scheduled a Bat Day in his honor for this spring.  New York fans, among the toughest and supposedly the most unforgiving in the world, have re-embraced him.  

So what changed?   A-Rod’s attitude, of course.  But that only begs the question.  “Attitude” is a broad term that cuts a wide swath across personality and action.  

To get to the bottom of A-Rod’s transformation, and the mercy he’s subsequently experienced from both his fan base and the media, we need to explore his embrace of three personal qualities, all beginning with the letter H:

• Humility. Yankees fans trace the roots of A-Rod’s turnaround to the at-bat that produced the Mays-tying home run, on May 1, in Boston’s Fenway Park.  Rodriguez had been in a slump, and manager Joe Girardi took the unprecedented step of benching him.   

With the game tied in the eighth inning, A-Rod was finally sent to bat and slammed the first pinch-hit home run of his career.  Video of the blast and its aftermath shows it was just the catharsis he needed - a watershed moment in which he dropped the facade, got in touch with himself, and allowed his humanity to show - both on the field and in an emotional post-game interview.    

As the summer wore on, Yankees fans who once booed Rodgriguez demonstrated a change of heart.  “The best part is that it all seems sincere,” Columbia University sports marketing professor Joe Favorito told the New York Post.  “You can’t fake it for very long in New York.”  

• Hard work.   But you have to back up humility with action - and production.  And A-Rod produced last year.  He clocked more home runs than in any year since 2008, and batted in more runs than he had since 2010.  

Our human nature craves a turnaround narrative; it speaks to our own self-doubt and gives us hope that we too can climb out of whatever rut we might find ourselves in.   But that narrative needs to be based in performance and fact, not wishful thinking or imagination.

•  Heedfulness.    Lastly, if the only person you ever listen to is yourself, you need to be open to hearing and taking good advice.  You can then seize opportunities that your humility and hard work helped to create.    After the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs last fall, Fox Sports offered the new A-Rod a first-ever shot doing post-season analysis.  He hesitated at first, but then heeded his better angels and decided to go ahead.  

Rodriguez “was superb on-air,” writes Nightengale.  “Passionate, honest and self deprecating… by the time the World Series was over, fans cheered him as he walked on the field.”

Some might say that the public turnaround of Alex Rodriguez is the sort of unique one-off that can't easily be replicated.  But a closer look demonstrates that the “Three H’s” were key players in the about-face.  Mercy, it seems, can be a media phenomenon as well as a faith-based one. 

It’s especially instructive as we witness one of the rawest, cruelest presidential races in memory.  As reputations get bloodied and good people flattened, it’s perhaps time to ask:  just who in the field is making all of the three H’s - humility, hard work and heedfulness - part of their public persona?   And just who else might need a refresher course?