Alex Rodriguez has made history, however one cares to define it. With a home run in the first inning off Justin Verlander at Yankee Stadium on Friday, A-Rod is the 29th player to record 3,000 hits in the major leagues and only the second to do so with the New York Yankees. In baseball’s international age, it’s also noteworthy that he’s the first player of Dominican heritage to join the 3,000-hit club.
And yet the national reaction to A-Rod’s achievement is neither celebration nor condemnation, given his longstanding link to performance-enhancing drugs. Rather, the sports world shrugged and went back to the week’s more popular topics of conversation — Steph Curry, the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Not even the white-hot lights at Yankee Stadium, trained on the most controversial figure in recent baseball history, roused us from our collective indifference.
The moment itself was magnificent: The crowd at Yankee Stadium stood in anticipation, cell phone cameras rolling, as Rodriguez swatted Verlander’s first pitch over the wall in right-center. The immediate reaction was exultant, with A-Rod blowing kisses toward the seats behind home plate, teammates emerging from the dugout, and the fans on their feet. But there was no fevered anticipation for this milestone one week ago, and there will be no romanticizing (or vilifying) a few days hence. Far from suggesting that is a symptom of baseball’s cultural marginalization, it’s a sign of progress: We’ve gone from regarding steroid-tainted sluggers with contempt (see Barry Bonds) to a form of apathy, which is healthier for us. And A-Rod, too.
Rodriguez’s successful return from a season-long suspension has been one of the most compelling stories in this baseball year, even if it’s been told in a whisper. He entered the weekend with genuine All-Star credentials: an .888 OPS, 12 home runs, 34 RBI. Biologically, is he still benefiting from past PED use? That’s impossible to know. Fans and analysts have been reluctant to say anything too kind about A-Rod’s apparently legitimate production, for fear we’ll come off sounding naive.
In this neutral environment, A-Rod has room to craft — for himself — the narrative of what these moments ought to mean. They obviously have great significance to him. He wept on the field at Fenway Park after tying Willie Mays with 660 career home runs, probably a mixture of pride and self-loathing, the more precise composition of which we’ll never know for sure.
For A-Rod, there is none of the unbridled adulation that followed Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit — the indelible home run off David Price at Yankee Stadium in 2011. But Rodriguez can take solace in the fact that there’s no discernible bitterness, either. To feel betrayed, fans would need to feel an emotional bond with Rodriguez. That hasn’t existed for years, if it ever did.
Through the best years of what should have been a Hall of Fame career, A-Rod’s immense talent and commensurate insincerity rendered him unrelatable. His steroid transgressions — and remorse — have humanized him, while simultaneously making a full embrace implausible. So here we are, in the increasingly comfortable middle ground.
Recently, Rodriguez has been cheered enthusiastically in Miami — his hometown — as well as New York. So, he knows of two ballparks where he can count on an ovation when he’s a retired 50-year-old. That undoubtedly matters a great deal to someone who has spent much of his life in an awkward, sometimes tragic search for acceptance.
A wiser Rodriguez, who will turn 40 next month, seems to have accepted the new terms of his place in the national pastime: His milestones are cheered honestly — at least in New York — even as his legacy remains imperfect. It is folly to obsess over one’s place in history, anyway, at a time when the Millennials who quarterback our prevailing sports conversation would struggle to name a half-dozen of the men in Hall of Fame blazers on the Cooperstown dais this July.
With his 3,000th hit, Alex Rodriguez wrote another of his career biography’s final pages on his own terms. Good for him, too. He can celebrate a triumph that means more to him than it ever would to us.