Latest Alex Rodriguez milestone nothing but a hollow number
Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th career home run at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday
His pursuit of 600 was tarnished by his admission last year that he used steroids
Rodriguez has always found a way to grab headlines, and not always good ones
NEW YORK -- Dozens of flashbulbs greeted Alex Rodriguez's first-inning swing Wednesday afternoon, and when he connected with the pitch from Toronto's Shaun Marcum, the 47,659 fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium stood and cheered as the ball arced over the center-field wall to become Rodriguez's 600th career home run. As he rounded the bases behind Derek Jeter, who had been on first base, the scoreboard congratulated Rodriguez and then there was a procession of hugs with every teammate in front of the empty dugout.
Rodriguez had just become only the seventh player in baseball history to reach that milestone. Had it not been for a protective netting hanging just beyond the center field fence, the ball would have landed in Monument Park, the ballpark museum where plaques celebrate Yankees legends. At such a moment, it was natural to wonder if Rodriguez himself will ever go where his historic homer nearly did.
"We're happy for him," said Jeter, whose spot in Monument Park has long been secured. "Anytime you're talking about an accomplishment like this, not that many people have done it."
Rodriguez certainly took his time joining the exclusive 600 Club, needing almost two weeks and 47 at-bats after parking No. 599 on July 22 against the Royals. After failing again on Tuesday night, Rodriguez said he spoke with Jeter at some length, in which his teammate shared his similar experience in chasing and passing a significant number -- in Jeter's case, Lou Gehrig's franchise hits record. "No question I was pressing to get it out of the way," said Rodriguez on Wednesday. "It's definitely a special number. I'm certainly proud of it. I'll cherish it for a long, long time."
It's hard to know how many others will. The public has quickly grown weary of tainted power numbers. Bonds' push past Aaron -- which came just four days after A-Rod hit his 500th in the summer of 2007 -- was greeted with rolled eyes and groans outside of San Francisco because it seemed to be a personal assault on a clean legend. When Rodriguez hit no. 500 exactly three years to the day before he reached 600, he was being looked at as the non-steroid tainted savior of the home run record, the one who would pry it away from BALCO Barry. Now, however, Rodriguez is just another disgraced power hitter of the Steroid Era, having been outed and subsequently confessed to using steroids between 2001 and 2003.
How much did steroids help Rodriguez? Even if all they did was increase his bat speed to catch up to balls he wouldn't otherwise have hit, it's fair to say he wouldn't be at 600 right now without them. It may also have added a few extra feet to his blasts, but A-Rod has never been a just-enough home-run hitter. Over the past five years, a period outside his confessed steroid use, he averaged 409 feet per home run. Even noted longball thief Torii Hunter admitted he had never come close to taking one away from Rodriguez.
"Whenever he hit a home run, I was watching," Hunter, the Angels' center fielder, said. "I was amazed with my mouth wide open like 'wow.' When he hit a home run, it wasn't a wall scraper. Balls he hit out of the park, don't worry about running after them."
Indeed, Rodriguez has always been more of a hitter with power than a true slugger. His swing is smooth and compact, yet explosive, making his power a little deceptive. Home runs are simply part of his overall game -- he's a .303 career hitter who has won a batting title -- and perhaps that's another reason for the lackluster reception for the milestone, not to mention that his power has noticeably diminished to just one home run every 24 at bats, his worst rate since 1997.
That scandal is the biggest reason for the diminished buzz as he approached 600. Another, more positive theory, is that this is a mere stepping stone along the way to bigger things.
"He's going to hit way more than 600," Yankees reliever Chad Gaudin said. "What matters is how many he has when he retires."
One more hypothesis is that Rodriguez's career has been split among three teams, and thus no one club's fans can claim him as their own. Even though he has played more games and hit more home runs with the Yankees than he did with either the Mariners or the Rangers, he'll never be lionized as a Yankee the same way that lifers like Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera are.
Perhaps most of all, the milestone din has been missing because with A-Rod, the show has never been about just what he does on the field. At various times in his career, there have been headlines about his contracts (he has signed the two biggest deals in baseball history), his social life (dating Hollywood actresses), his sportsmanship (slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove during the 2004 playoffs, announcing he was opting out of his contract during the 2007 World Series or yelling "Ha!" to distract Blue Jays' third baseman Howie Clark from fielding a pop-up), his associations (his overly candid admission about his fading friendship with Jeter and his connection to a Canadian doctor known for promoting human growth hormone) and his portrayal in the media (posing for a lurid photo shoot in which he wore a dingy tanktop, lounged on an old mattress and kissed his own reflection in a mirror).
This season, too, Rodriguez has been a magnet for mishap and misfortune. He jogged across a mound occupied by A's starter Dallas Braden, violating one of baseball's lesser known codes of conduct, even among the game's unwritten rules. He was the lone AL position player not to participate in the All-Star Game, reportedly because of a sore thumb that Yankees and AL All-Star manager Joe Girardi denied his player had.
"I know how much Al just wants to get down to baseball and winning games and not being the talk," Girardi said Wednesday. "I'm happy for him.
Rodriguez spoke repeatedly in recent days about how he has changed, trying to be less the center of attention while focusing less on his own statistics and more on his team's accomplishments. On Wednesday, he admitted that in the past he has failed to back up his words with actions, saying "I didn't always walk the walk" and he mentioned how he'd like to be seen as just a baseball player.
That may not be possible for someone who spends so much time in the spotlight, even when he doesn't want to. But unlike other tainted sluggers such as Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, A-Rod has the luxury time to prove to fans and Hall of Fame voters with his all around play on the field and contrition off it that he is a different man.
Rodriguez's redemption story and journey to joining the Yankees greats in Monument Park cannot be simply about home runs. For now, this milestone is just a hollow number. Statistics alone are no longer convincing. His impact will have to come in other ways, such as his role in helping New York win last year's World Series. That's how he can change opinions about himself.
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