It must mean something that Rodriguez seems more eager to talk about Madonna. His relationship with the 50-year-old pop priestess has been a "Page Six" staple for months, though there's been no confirmation of its exact nature. "Well, we're friends," Rodriguez says. "She's an amazing entertainer. And it's been amazing how she's been able to stay on top for three decades. I have a lot of respect for her." He says he's enjoyed their conversations, and her counsel. "She's very smart," he says, "and she's passionate about everything she does." Rodriguez can't name anything specific he's asked Madonna for advice on, "but if there ever was any situation, she's a great ear to have, you know?"

Their meeting was not, as some have speculated, arranged by Oseary, who represents them both. "I met her about 12 years ago in Miami, believe it or not," he says. "That's how we know each other. I was trying to buy her house, and I couldn't afford it."

This much is true: He's single. Rodriguez is divorced from his wife, Cynthia, with whom he has two children. He says that he and Cynthia now have a "wonderful relationship" (indeed, Cynthia lends support a few days later, when Rodriguez confesses his sins to ESPN). "I'm happy the way that things are going," he says. "But playing through all that was obviously challenging."

Part of him seems to have grown comfortable with being the heel. He is clearly still eager to please, but even when he fails to he manages to thrive—he had his best season in 2007, as tabloids reported on his troubled marriage and his alleged relationship with a stripper. It's as if these cracks in his armor revealed glimpses of humanity beneath. After trying to be a superhero, Rodriguez doesn't mind looking a bit human. "At one point I did nothing wrong," he says, almost with pride. "And now, over the last three or four years, I caught up, you know?"

Maybe it's just liberating not to be seen as perfect anymore. In New York, after all, what matters is results. "New York is one of a kind," Rodriguez says. "It's made me ask all the tough questions. It's brought out the best in me. There are some things I have to work on. And that part is fun." He pauses, and then, perhaps alluding to coming events, says, "Revealing the truth about yourself is always good."

The next time I see Alex Rodriguez is in Tampa, in a hot blue tent full of sweaty, middle-aged white guys who want to watch him cry. It's eight days after the ESPN interview, and we're here for A-Rod's official press conference/public flogging before spring training begins. Nearly 200 people are packed into the big top, including many of Rodriguez's teammates, who are here to show support but look like they've been dragged to a mandatory school assembly. Meanwhile, Team A-Rod has now swelled beyond Boras, Oseary, the William Morris Agency, and P.R. adviser Richard Rubenstein to include a crisis-management firm called Outside Eyes that employs several people who once worked for, of all things, George W. Bush's White House communications office.