At long last, it’s a big blast
Scuffling A-Rod launches No. 600
NEW YORK — On the outside, Alex Rodriguez could find humor in his home run drought. He poked fun at his inability to hit the elusive No. 600, advising fans and teammates to “get comfortable’’ because it was going to take a while, and he hardly seemed flustered as the homerless streak followed him to Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and back to the Bronx. But in reality, Rodriguez was growing weary of it all. Every at-bat, all 46 of them, Rodriguez wanted to hit a home run, and each time he did not, the cycle perpetuated itself.
But yesterday afternoon, in his 47th at-bat since No. 599, Rodriguez crushed a ball to deep center and jogged toward first base with his hands outstretched, his palms up. It is the universal body language for “What did I do?’’ but Rodriguez knew exactly what he had just done. His chase was finally over.
On the third anniversary of his 500th homer, Rodriguez reached his latest milestone in the first inning of the Yankees’ 5-1 victory over Toronto, connecting for a two-run blast off Shaun Marcum that landed in Monument Park, where the ball was retrieved by a security guard. The crowd at Yankee Stadium rose and roared as he rounded the bases, and when Rodriguez reached the plate, Derek Jeter, who had been on base, was waiting for him with an embrace.
The rest of his teammates poured from the dugout, with Nick Swisher reaching him first.
“I felt bad for them,’’ Rodriguez said. “I had them waiting a long, long time.’’
He had been waiting since July 22 to go from 599 to 600 and join an exclusive fraternity that now numbers seven. Until now, Willie Mays had taken the longest to get No. 600, needing 21 at-bats, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Rodriguez’s futility far surpassed that, but now that he has finally knocked down the door, the drought becomes a footnote.
Eight days after turning 35, Rodriguez also became the youngest player to get to 600. He had gone hitless in his previous 17 at-bats and the Yankees had lost three consecutive games to fall out of first place in the American League East. And after yesterday’s game he acknowledged the pursuit of 600 had hardly been joyful.
“I’ve got to say, they really haven’t been a lot of fun,’’ said Rodriguez, when asked how he has handled the last two weeks. Because Rodriguez admitted in February 2009 he used performance-enhancing drugs for three seasons with the Rangers, his latest milestone comes with an asterisk attached. The steroid era has tarnished two other members of the 600-homer club — Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa — and to at least some extent, Rodriguez will be seen the same way. How he will eventually fare in Hall of Fame balloting remains to be seen.
Yesterday, however, Rodriguez was not about to look that far into the future. He was happy and relieved, even if the seemingly endless nature of his quest took some of the drama out of his pursuit. Indeed, when he finally connected, the celebration felt a little anticlimactic.
At one point afterward, Rodriguez joked that the Boss himself, George Steinbrenner, who died last month, would not have been pleased with him during his recent futility.
“There’s no question I was pressing, because I wanted to get it out of the way to get back to playing good, small team baseball,’’ Rodriguez said. “For me in my career, less is more. When I think small, big things happen.’’
This season, Rodriguez has endured other homerless streaks of 61, 49, and 41 at-bats, and for the past three months he has been asked whether his power is starting to diminish. Entering yesterday, he had homered once every 23.94 at-bats this season. Last year, that figure was one every 14.80 at-bats, and his career average is 14.50. Still, Rodriguez remains in a good position to eventually break Bonds’s career home run record of 762.
Rodriguez has 17 homers this season and with a strong finish can hit 30 for a 13th consecutive season. At a pace of 30 a season, he would reach 700 in late 2013, surpass Babe Ruth in 2014 and overtake Bonds with No. 763 in 2016, sometime before his 41st birthday.
As for the Yankees, there is always a milestone on the horizon. For the moment, though, Rodriguez can relax. No. 700 is still off in the distance.