A-Rod approaching milestone of 600 home runs
For years, Alex Rodriguez has been proclaimed baseball's future home run king. He has cleared the fences at such a remarkable rate, reaching many milestones more quickly than any other slugger of any generation.
He also has long been among the most closely scrutinized figures in his sport, practically from the day he took his first swing in the majors on July 8, 1994, 19 days shy of his 19th birthday, to his days as one of the game's richest stars.
As he approaches his next significant accomplishment - career home run No. 600 - the focus on A-Rod figures to intensify even more, and not just because he will become just the seventh player to reach the hallowed mark. He will be the first admitted steroid user to get there.
After hitting two homers on Tuesday in Oakland, the Yankees star was three away at 597 entering a four-game series in his old Seattle stomping grounds starting Thursday night that takes New York into the All-Star break.
Getting to 600 used to come with an automatic spot in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. Yet it's unclear how Rodriguez will be received when he does it - especially if he does it this weekend back in the Northwest city where his career took off in the mid-90s.
``Everywhere I go, people are always asking about it and you see it on the Jumbotron every game,'' Rodriguez said of his total. ``It's hard to ignore it but I'm looking at 600 as first base. I want to run right through it and use it as a platform and a springboard for more to come.''
From his pro baseball beginning with the Mariners to that monster $252 million, 10-year contract he received from Texas for his first free-agent deal at age 25, A-Rod's career - not to mention his personal life - has been closely watched. Then came the pressures and spotlight that followed his move to the Bronx, where he was supposed to help George Steinbrenner's club get back to regularly winning the World Series. It took until his sixth season in pinstripes to capture that elusive ring.
While home run chases generate their share of national attention and interest - think Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds-Babe Ruth and Bonds-Hank Aaron - there's no countdown at Yankee Stadium as Rodriguez closes in on his latest feat. The hype is minor compared to the excitement about the defending World Series champions sending the majors' biggest contingent to Tuesday's All-Star game in Anaheim.
Still, there's no denying it takes some serious production to clear the fences 600 times.
``Wow, it's a Hall of Fame career,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. ``It's incredible production. It's consistency for a long time to get to that point. It's not something you see very often. Alex has been a superstar for a long time. I don't know where the ceiling is (for him).''
Rodriguez doesn't even turn 35 until later this month, on July 27.
That leaves plenty of years for more longballs - at least that's what everybody expects from him.
``Al's going to hit 800 home runs,'' Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said. ``He's got (nearly) 600 now, he's (almost) 35. He's going to play five more years if he stays healthy. He's going to hit another 150, so he's going to hit 750, probably more.''
Jackson has been around a few of those other guys in the elite 600 - or 700 for that matter - club. He hit 563 career homers in his 21-year career.
``I remember when Willie (Mays) got there and Henry (Aaron),'' Jackson said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``I remember when Bonds went there. But I remember when Willie and Henry got there it was really a big deal because they were chasing Ruth. And of course Aaron got there with his foot on the gas. He was going somewhere, seeing that he was going to hit 700. It was pretty exciting, really, to see the guys play against him, watching him. You knew they were trying to hit homers and still perform.''
A-Rod and others performed with some help.
Rodriguez announced in February 2009 he had used illegal performance-enhancers from 2001 to 2003 while with Texas.
McGwire finally came clean in January, just before heading to spring training as the St. Louis Cardinals' new hitting coach. Steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs fueled his game - including during his record-setting 70 home-run season in 1998.
So, will the skeptics soon start calling for an asterisk to go up next to A-Rod's name? Perhaps. Or, maybe not yet but down the road.
Many believe it's only a matter of time until A-Rod breaks Bonds' record of 762 homers. Bonds broke Aaron's 755 on Aug. 7, 2007, for the San Francisco Giants but hasn't played since that season. If Rodriguez does it, he could last as home run king for a while. Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols is just more than halfway there.
``He's a great hitter and has done a lot of things to help confirm that,'' Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson said of A-Rod. ``This is just one of the many things that he's done so far in his career and that he will do to show how good of a hitter he is.''
Jackson doesn't even consider Bonds the real home run king - for years he has been plagued by steroids allegations though he has vehemently denied ever knowingly using a banned substance. That distinction goes to Aaron in Jackson's mind.
He knows A-Rod has the game, swing and determination to get there.
Until winning a ring in 2009 at long last, A-Rod's resume was highlighted by his postseason futility. He hit a combined six home runs in last year's division series, ALCS and World Series, only one fewer than in seven previous postseason trips.
``Probably my most memorable Alex home runs are in the playoffs, and those don't count,'' Girardi said. ``The ones last year were awfully memorable for us.''
Jackson stresses what a dangerous, pure hitter Rodriguez can be every time he steps in the batter's box, but especially when he squares up the ball and sends it toward right-center.
``That's his true move I call it,'' said Jackson, a Yankees special advisor. ``He's got probably a more unflawed move if he takes his natural swing, which is hitting the ball to right-center. His move gets flawed when he thinks longball, left field. Then he gets around the ball, his swing gets longer and it's not his natural move. But when he tries to hit the ball into right-center, it's short, it's quick and it's unflawed. It's as pure as you can see.''