Milestone just a pit stop for A-Rod
Youngest player to 500 homers destined for all-time mark
Alex Rodriguez broke the bank once, and he may soon do so again. But he is spending this season breaking down doors and perceptions.The incandescent Bronx third baseman has redefined grace under intense pressure, both self inflicted and applied by pinstriped New York. Under layers of heat that would scorch most mortals, he has kept producing like a man possessed -- of varied skills, and of a singular obsession. Lampooning his reputation as a clutch lightweight, he has been an absolute terror at crunch time, repeatedly turning out the lights on opponents. And he is reducing a monumental occasion -- Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron and 755 home runs -- to a mere opening act, a prologue for his own odyssey. When Bonds inevitably hits homer No. 756, he won't be claiming the career record. He will simply be borrowing it, until Rodriguez gets around to blowing by him in the final laps of his tour as the greatest player of baseball's first 140 years. While the preceding is an increasingly popular opinion, Bobby Cox stepped up to boil the entire matter down to basics. Asked about moving into Bonds' crosshairs prior to a late-July series in San Francisco, the Atlanta manager shrugged and said, "I don't think it's going to matter that much anyways. I think Alex Rodriguez will break this thing in another five years." Bonds is in total agreement. In a recent revealing and comprehensive interview on Fox Sports Net, when asked who he thinks might eventually top him, Bonds said without hesitation, "Alex Rodriguez." "I also told him he won't have to call me," Bonds adds, "because I'll be right there in the front row, cheering." For others, like Frank Thomas, 500 is a destination, reached with relief and exhaustion. For Rodriguez, it is a rest stop. The Big Hurt provides the perfect context for Rodriguez's Big Haul. Except for a couple of recent seasons sabotaged by leg injuries, Thomas is reverently recalled as a long-time force in the heart of the White Sox's lineup. And for him to finally cross the 500 line nearly in his 40s while Rodriguez breezes there barely in his 30s ... well, that crystallizes Rodriguez's destiny. Resented or even outwardly detested for little more than having the matchless talents to have named his own price, Rodriguez inspires a kaleidoscope of tabloid-ready nicknames: E-Rod, Hey-Rod, Lightning Rod, Hot Rod, Pay-Rod. Well, just call him Babe-Rod. Although, not even The Bambino, who invented the phenomenon, clipped home runs at this prodigal pace. No one has and, unless they start playing games inside softball fences, no one will. Or Next-Rod. Rodriguez will soon own the record Bonds will set. We're all just waiting to see how high the bar goes. But on the diamonds and in the front-office suites and press-box seats overlooking them, there is shocking anonymity about Fate-Rod's destiny.
Shocking, because in a relative blink he is expected to grab a mark that, when Bonds gets there, will have been broken only twice in 72 years (Babe Ruth retired in 1935 with 714, which Aaron pushed to 755 in 1976).Even the man himself appears to be getting increasingly comfortable with the notion of soon replacing Bonds in the bubble. Only a couple of years ago, Rodriguez discounted his prospects by saying he couldn't envision "hanging around" just for a shot at the record. With 500 at barely past his 32nd birthday, he has removed himself from the "hanging around" stage. This does not make him any more comfortable talking about those prospects, but neither does he continue to just shrug them off. A couple of recent encounters in San Francisco with Bonds -- during the Yankees' Interleague series in late June, then the All-Star Game -- afforded opportunities for Rodriguez to openly gaze into his future as the Next Chosen. At one point, A-Rod said, "I'm not worried about that. It's hard to think about individual things when you desperately want to win. The other thing is I got to this point by not thinking about myself and thinking about the team. This is Barry's time, not my time." On another occasion, Rodriguez revealed his disdain for projections, saying, "I kind of feel shy talking about it, because I hit 14 home runs in April and they said I was going to hit 140. When you're [still hundreds] away ... I think it's kind of ridiculous." Mathematically, Rodriguez can't be deterred: At even 75 percent of his current rate (allowing for age, though that may be unnecessary, since proverbially hitters don't even reach their primes until 33, 34) he would reach 760 during the 2014 season -- which he would start as a 38-year-old. The preceding projection is sheer folly, but even that has a point: In the seasons they entered at 38, Ruth had 652 homers, Aaron had 639 -- and Bonds had 567. Down the stretch to 500, Rodriguez found himself in an interesting race. Not with another person -- there's simply no one else running on the same track -- but with the calendar. Down the stretch, he needed only a typical A-Rod week to beat his birthday, July 27, to the figure. Regardless, he was sure to blow by the existing record for youngest to post 500, by Jimmie Foxx, who was a month shy of his 33rd birthday when he connected for No. 500 on Sept. 24, 1940. But there would have been something symbolic about Rodriguez getting there still at 31. It would have dramatized the bright tail on this meteor streaking across the diamond sky. Compare Rodriguez's speed track to the game's other fabled sluggers: Ruth, Aaron, Willie Mays, Sosa and Griffey, who all reached 500 at 34. Bonds got there at 36. A-Rod, at times, may make it look easy. But it is anything but, and to say otherwise cheapens the art, and the work and dedication it has taken to hone it to such levels. Not to mention the durability, an often-overlooked factor. Reggie Jackson, who popped a few long balls in his day and has been a studious Rodriguez watcher since he joined the Yankees, says of him, "He works harder than any man I've ever known in baseball." And when Rodriguez's work is done, he will leave it as no one ever has.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.