The night before his life changes forever, Alex Rodriguez calls from Miami with an urgent request. A-Rod is worried about something he said during our interview last night. I've been hearing mysterious warnings all afternoon: Alex needs to talk. Alex wants to clarify something. Can't say what. Alex will call you from his car.

"Listen," Rodriguez says. "I was thinking about one thing that I spoke about—it's something that's kind of trivial but will give me a hard time for no reason." He pauses. "The song."

Aha. Last night, he let slip his favorite Madonna song. The curious relationship between A-Rod and the pop icon makes for delicious gossip, of course. Is Rodriguez terrified that Madonna will resent the tongue-wagging? Or, better still, has he picked the wrong song as his favorite, and fears that an offended Madge might march her stilettos over his back? No: Rodriguez believes that revealing the song would lead to its being played every time he stepped to the plate during an away game. "The last thing I want to do is go to every stadium and have them play that song," he says. Fine—to be honest, it's not even a great Madonna song (if it had been something juicy like "Justify My Love," forget it).

Looking back, his preoccupation seems surreal. Just the day before, Selena Roberts, a reporter from Sports Illustrated, had confronted Rodriguez at a Miami gym, asking for his reaction to evidence that he'd tested positive for illegal steroids in 2003. And now here he was, sweating a Madonna song. It's like worrying about the in-flight movie as your plane is belly flopping on the Hudson River.

Maybe Rodriguez is in denial. He's just spent the afternoon happily posing for the cover shoot for this story, showing off his strapping physique and loosening up with shots of Patrón. His pals talk of continuing the party nearby, at the remodeled Fontainebleu hotel. When he calls later there's no panic in his voice, no foreshadowing of the humiliation that he, at least, knows is coming. It really is as though his biggest concern in the world is that Madonna song. That fear is misdirected anyhow: Like an opposing team's ballpark needs any inspiration to crank up a Madonna song when A-Rod comes to the plate. Velvet-vested organists have been practicing the entire Ciccone oeuvre for months.

You know what happens next. Just over 12 hours after we hang up, Sports Illustrated publishes its story. Two days after that, a tearful Alex Rodriguez carefully confirms to ESPN that he used a "banned substance." Excoriated in the media, the best baseball player of his generation is in an unimaginable fight to get his good name back.

He'd probably give anything to return to worrying about that damn song.

"Alex," he says, extending a hand. "Nice to meet you."

Rodriguez strides toward my table in a sleek Italian restaurant in Miami's South Beach wearing a cappuccino-colored sweater, a white oxford shirt, jeans, and pristine white sneakers. Style-wise, he's a little Fred Rogers, a little Jerry Seinfeld. His eyes are turquoise green, and his brown hair is cut and gelled impeccably (the frosted tips were excised a while ago). On his left wrist is a red string Kabbalah bracelet. He orders an iced tea and explains why he was delayed on his way to dinner. One of his daughters was taken to the hospital with a staph infection. She's going to be fine, he says, sounding relieved.