Joey Bartolomeo
July 21, 2008 12:00 PM

On the surface, Guy Ritchie’s stroll through New York City’s Central Park on July 5 with his sons Rocco and David seemed like nothing more than a bit of family bonding. Yet anyone following the play-by-play of Ritchie and Madonna‘s recent marital strife found the scene rich in meaningful details. First, the British director, 39, was still in New York—and smiling—after arriving five days earlier from London amid reports the couple’s marriage was kaput. Then, there was the boys’ New York Yankees gear—a significant fashion statement in light of reports their mother has been having an alleged affair with the team’s third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball.

As Madonna and Ritchie try their best to project togetherness (stepping out for dinner, attending Kabbalah services), Rodriguez’s five-year marriage to wife Cynthia has imploded, with claims that Madonna was the other woman and wooed the slugger using Kabbalah. (Adding more soapy drama? Cynthia was said to have run off to Paris with pal Lenny Kravitz. The rocker quickly issued this denial: “I opened my home to her as a friend, and I find it extremely hurtful that I am now being referred to as an adulterer.”) Fed up by the rumors, Madonna went as far as to issue a statement to PEOPLE exclusively, “I want to officially and for the record state the following facts: My husband and I are not planning on getting a divorce. I know Alex Rodriguez through Guy Oseary, who manages both of us…. I am not romantically involved in any way with Alex Rodriguez. I have nothing to do with the state of his marriage or what spiritual path he may choose to study.”

Cynthia Rodriguez clearly disagrees. On July 7 she filed for divorce, citing Alex’s “extramarital affairs and other marital misconduct.” (Alex’s attorney was not available for comment.) Though Madonna‘s name is not mentioned in the court documents, Cynthia’s attorney, Earle Lilly, tells PEOPLE that Alex, 32, had an “affair of the heart” with the singer, 49. (Madonna‘s rep denies the claim.) “Some people categorize an affair as sexual infidelity,” Lilly explains. “We’re not claiming that.” Still, Alex’s relationship with the singer, says Lilly, was “the last straw” for Cynthia, 35, who gave birth to the couple’s second child, Ella, in April. (Daughter Natasha is 3.)

This isn’t the first time A-Rod’s been accused of playing the field: Last year, he was dubbed “Stray-Rod” by the New York Post after being photographed going to a Toronto strip club with a blonde; a source in Miami says the jock is “always out with all kinds of women.” But sources close to the couple say those dalliances were not why Cynthia called it quits. “She feels alone and emotionally crippled because Alex has not been there for her and the kids in recent weeks,” says a friend.

Sources close to Cynthia—who plans to challenge the couple’s prenup and seek primary custody of the girls as well as the family home in Coral Gables, Fla.—say she was tipped off to her husband’s relationship with Madonna about a month ago when she discovered a letter he had written extolling the singer as his “soul mate.” “She was really shocked and hurt by it,” Alex’s former trainer and Cynthia’s close friend Dodd Romero tells PEOPLE. (Romero told the Post that A-Rod only listens to Madonna‘s music in his car and that “he’d go into a trance” when he saw one of her videos.)

Rodriguez originally met Madonna through mutual Miami-based friend Ingrid Casares, sources say, and since last fall, the stars have publicly crossed paths several times. On June 22, about a week before the affair allegations surfaced, Madonna attended a Yankees game with Oseary and her kids. In April, Rodriguez attended her New York City concert to celebrate the release of her new CD. Before that, he stepped out for her Raising Malawi fund-raiser, attended the premiere of Ritchie’s film Revolver, and even worked out with her at Reebok Sports Club in Manhattan.

According to a source, Madonna introduced Catholic-raised Rodriguez to the mystical Jewish teachings of Kabbalah last year. “Madonna‘s spiritual stuff definitely rubbed off on Alex,” says a friend. “He became curious, but he didn’t convert to Kabbalah completely.” A source close to Cynthia, who is Greek Orthodox, says Alex’s involvement in the religion put a strain on the marriage. “Look, he hasn’t been the best husband and he knows it,” says another A-Rod pal. “The Kabbalah thing was partially to alleviate the guilt, but also to clear his mind. I think he also did it to provoke his wife. She thought it was bonkers, and he liked pushing her buttons.”

But a friend of the couple says Cynthia—described as “tough” even by her friends—shares some responsibility for the split. “She checked out long before he did,” says the insider. A well-placed source says it wasn’t unusual to see the couple arguing in the parking lot after a game: “They’re both volatile.”

While Rodriguez’s schedule limits family time, his Miami-based trainer Jay Regale maintains, “He is a great father, a great person, a great friend.” As for how Alex will handle the breakup, a source close to his camp says, “He won’t even deal with this…. He’ll concentrate on baseball.”

Madonna, meanwhile, isn’t letting the accusations affect her day-to-day routine, either. “She’s not feeling embattled at all,” says an insider. “She’s working, and she’s spending time with her husband and children.” As for speculation that Madonna masterminded this entire frenzy in order to draw attention to her upcoming tour, the insider notes, “There are way better ways to get publicity.”

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