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A-Rod trying to write graceful ending

Slugger can't erase the past, but he's exceeding expectations this season
MLB.com @RichardJustice

Alex Rodriguez's name now sits right there alongside that of Willie Mays on the all-time home run list, and you just might need some time to wrap your mind around that one.

Mays defined greatness to a couple of generations of baseball fans, both those who watched him play and those who heard of his exploits from others. He fueled baseball's popularity for all of them.

Full Game Coverage

Alex Rodriguez's name now sits right there alongside that of Willie Mays on the all-time home run list, and you just might need some time to wrap your mind around that one.

Mays defined greatness to a couple of generations of baseball fans, both those who watched him play and those who heard of his exploits from others. He fueled baseball's popularity for all of them.

Full Game Coverage

Mays' 660 career home runs have been one of the magical numbers in baseball history, a testament to an amazing, charismatic player. Now, he shares that place with Rodriguez, who hammered his 660th in the Yankees' 3-2 win Friday night at Fenway Park off Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa.

In a season in which Rodriguez has already surpassed plenty of expectations, he's one homer from being alone in fourth place, which would put him 53 home runs behind Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron (755) and Barry Bonds (762) are on the distant horizon.

Video: NYY@BOS: A-Rod discusses hitting homer No. 660

How are we supposed to feel about Rodriguez catching Mays? Beyond that, how do we mark a chemically enhanced milestone when it comes at the expense of one of the most beloved players to wear the uniform?

Here's a simple solution: We deal with it.

Competitive people have always looked for advantages, and A-Rod came along at a time when science offered stunningly effective substances. You can waste a lot of good time trying to figure out who used some form of performance-enhancing drugs and who didn't.

So we move on.

There are two points to make on Rodriguez. First, the people who evaluate amateur baseball players for a living will tell you he was as good as they've ever seen. He was 16 years old when he came onto a lot of radar screens, a tall, skinny kid from South Florida who did absolutely everything well.

When scouts talk about the best players they've ever seen, Rodriguez is mentioned right up there with Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson and others. Back then, A-Rod wanted to be Cal Ripken Jr., who redefined the position of shortstop.

Scouts make outrageous comparisons all the time. Every pitcher is Roger Clemens, every hitter Frank Robinson. In this case, they were absolutely right. The Mariners made Rodriguez the No. 1 overall pick of the 1993 First-Year Player Draft.

In July 1994, Rodriguez made his Major League debut a couple of weeks before his 19th birthday. In '96, his first full season, he hit 36 home runs and 54 doubles, and from that point on, there was no discussion of baseball's best players without including him.

We'll never know how good Rodriguez could have been without performance-enhancing drugs. Would he still have 660 home runs? This we'll never know, and there's some sadness in that.

One more point about A-Rod. While he can never erase all that has happened in the past, he seems determined to write a graceful ending.

Rodriguez, who was suspended for the 2014 season, probably needed an entire season off to allow his body to rest and recover. When he took off the Yankees uniform after the 2012 season, he resembled a guy who had nothing left in the tank.

A-Rod's OPS (.771) declined for a sixth straight season in the 44 games he played in 2013, so to think he'd return the way he has is a surprise. His bat appears to be quicker than it was at any point in 2012 or '13.

Rodriguez has also said all the right things. At times, it's like he's speaking from a memorized script, and to his credit, he has stuck to it.

A-Rod has said over and over that he's simply glad to be back "playing the game that I love." He will play whenever he's asked, wherever he's needed.

While it's impossible to know if Rodriguez's 39-year-old body will hold up over the grind of a 162-game season, he has passed every test with flying colors so far.

When Rodriguez is cheered at Yankee Stadium, he says he's more appreciative than ever because he didn't know if he'd ever get another opportunity. His performance has eased the transition back onto the field. A-Rod homered in his third home game back and has a .934 OPS.

Rodriguez may never again be considered a great player, but he has come a long way back from hitting .120 in the 2012 postseason. He's still booed loudly on the road, perhaps a reminder that fans still remember him and that his mistakes may not be forgotten.

Rodriguez seems OK with that, too. After a year away, even the boos have a sweetness to them.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.

 

New York Yankees, Alex Rodriguez