Alex Rodriguez will play his final game as a member of the New York Yankees on Friday, and barring an unexpected power surge in his final start at Yankee Stadium — he's batting .174 with two homers and 9 RBI over the last two months — A-Rod's tumultuous 13-year stint in the Bronx will end with the slugger sitting on 696 career home runs. As it stands, only three players in history have hit 700 major league home runs, and unless another team signs the 41-year-old Rodriguez upon his release, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth will remain the only players to hit the mark. One would imagine that coming up so short of such a rare achievement would eat at Rodriguez, who is not necessarily known for his humility. And you've got to imagine A-Rod would give just about anything — except, perhaps, the $21 million salary he's due for 2017 — for a shot at 700. But should he ultimately be forced to retire at 696 (or 697, or 698, or 699 ...) he'll be in good company. Here's a look at other notable athletes who stepped away from the game (by choice or otherwise) just shy of a major milestone.
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When Robinson retired in 1976, he did so within striking distance of both 3,000 hits (2,943) and 600 home runs (586), but it’s unlikely he would have reached either had he played another year. Robinson was already 41 when he played his final game — he spent his last two seasons as a player/manager for the Cleveland Indians — and had just 53 hits and 14 home runs during his final three seasons combined. Only old-timers Sam Rice and Sam Crawford have come closer to 3,000 hits without getting there, and no player has come closer to 600 homers without hitting the mark.
When illness forced the Iron Horse to retire at the age of 35 in 1939, he did so just shy of both 500 home runs (493) and 2,000 RBIs (1,995). One has to figure that Gehrig would have eclipsed both marks in short order had he been able to continue playing — to say nothing of his 2,721 career hits. But Gehrig wasn’t the type to get hung up on individual accolades, and he said as much in his historic farewell address, when he called himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. In addition to Gehrig, Fred McGriff also retired with 493 home runs, and Bonds (1,996) sits just shy of 2,000 RBIs.
With 3,007 career hits, Kaline reached the 3,000-hit milestone with little time to spare, but Mr. Tiger wasn’t so lucky when it came to home runs, finishing his career with 399. Making matters worse, Kaline lost two home runs to weather. The first came on June 1, 1958, when a second-inning homer against the White Sox was wiped out when the game was rained out in the third inning. The second occurred on May 17, 1963, when another second-inning homer was scrubbed from the books by a rainout.
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Thanks to the legendary Bill Veeck, Minoso played in five different decades, but it wasn’t enough to get him to a .300 career batting average. Instead Minoso retired at .298, a number that would have been .299 had he not gone 1-for-8 as a 50-year-old in 1976 and 0-for-2 in 1980. The list of others to retire with a .298 batting average includes Bonds and Mickey Mantle and Julio Franco (who also hurt his cause by playing too long). There are also eight who retired batting .299, including Kenny Lofton and Dante Bichette.
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In the history of baseball, only eight players have played in 3,000 career regular-season games, and all of them (save for Pete Rose) are in the Hall of Fame. Mays, too, was an obvious Hall of Famer, inducted in 1979, but when he retired in 1973, at the age of 42, he did so with 2,992 career appearances. Additionally, Bonds retired having played 2,986 games, and another Hall of Famer, Dave Winfield, played his 2,973rd and final game in 1995, at the age of 43.
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For starting pitchers, 300 wins is considered to be the gold standard, and no one has come closer to win No. 300 without reaching it than John, who retired in 1989 with 288 wins. John made his final big league appearance three days after his 46th birthday, so he certainly had plenty of time to hit the milestone, but one can’t help but wonder what might have been had he not missed the entire 1975 season to the surgery that now bears his name. The same could be said, too, for Bert Blyleven, who finished with 287 wins despite missing most of the 1982 season and all of 1991 due to injury.
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Before he won an MVP and a Cy Young Award as a closer, Eckersley spent more than a decade as a starter. One could hardly argue it was a bad idea — a Hall of Famer, Eck won 149 games, threw 100 complete games and had a 3.71 career ERA as a starter — but it may have cost him two separate milestones. For his career, which ended at age 43 in 1998, Eckersley won 197 total games and logged 390 saves. One can only guess how much higher either number may have been with more time spent practicing one discipline, but either 200 wins or 400 saves would have been a given.
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The ageless Moon played forever, but not long enough to join the 300-touchdown club. When he retired at age 44 in 2000, Moon did so with 291 career passing touchdowns, though there’s no telling how many more he would have thrown had he played in the NFL from the start. (He threw 144 touchdown passes in six seasons in the CFL before making his NFL debut.) Additionally, Moon also came up 675 yards short of 50,000 career passing yards, to say nothing of his 21,228 yards through the air in the CFL.
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Only eight players in NFL history can claim 100 career rushing touchdowns, and Sanders would have most certainly joined the club (and likely made a run at the career rushing yards record, to boot) had he not unexpectedly retired with 99 career scores prior to the 1999 season. Sanders is one of a quintet of Hall of Famers who retired within 10 rushing touchdowns of 100, a group that also includes Franco Harris (91), Jerome Bettis (91), Curtis Martin (90) and Eric Dickerson (90). Marshall Faulk and Shaun Alexander, meanwhile, retired at 100 touchdowns, even.
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When it comes to receiving yardage totals, there’s Jerry Rice, and then there’s everyone else. For everyone else, the elite benchmark of note is 15,000 yards, and Brown came painfully short of that total, retiring after the 2004 season with 14,934 career receiving yards. To Brown’s credit, however, he did play long enough to catch 100 touchdowns, snagging his 100th and final career touchdown in his only season as a member of the Tampa Bay Bucs after a long career with the Oakland Raiders.
Bruce Smith is the only player in NFL history to amass 200 career sacks, but White came close, finally calling it quits with a career total of 198. To be fair, White did retire the all-time leader in sacks — Smith passed him in 2003, three years after White’s final game — but to many, any sack record is relative, anyway. The NFL didn’t begin to officially count sacks until 1982, a decision that once led Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones to memorably ask, “Since when does ‘all-time’ begin in 1982?’” (For what it’s worth, researchers’ best estimates put Jones’ sack total at 173.5.)
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To date, Robertson is the only player to average a triple-double for the season — a title Russell Westbrook may well make a run at this season — and for his career, Robertson averaged better than nine assists per game. By that measure, then, Robertson would have only needed 12 more games to reach the 10,000-assist mark for his career. Instead, the Hall of Famer settled for 9,887, retiring at the age of 35 after the Milwaukee Bucks declined to include a “no-cut, no-trade” clause in his new contract.
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The Mailman stuck around long enough to unsuccessfully chase a ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in his 19th and final season. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough time for him to reach 15,000 rebounds. Malone retired after the 2003-04 season with 14,968 boards, the most by a player who didn’t hit 15,000. On the flip side, Tim Duncan hung on long enough to reach the mark (15,091) and also became the sixth player in history with 3,000 blocks. Next on that list? Duncan’s old Spurs mentor David Robinson (2,954).