How is Alex Rodriguez's latest milestone not really so exciting?
Let us count the ways ...
Right or wrong, we just don't get excited about drug cheaters. Not about their positive accomplishments, anyway. Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds ... each of them is strongly suspected (at least) of using illegal drugs to get ahead, and each of them has gotten less credit for his feats than he otherwise would have.*
* Caveat: When we talk about "drug cheaters" we're talking about modern drug cheaters. We know that many of the superstars of the 1970s used illegal drugs as performance enhancers. For some reason, we've decided we don't care.
It's not easy to like Rodriguez, who somehow manages to combine the banal with the bizarre. His every public utterance seems to come from a robot programmed by a publicist ... except the robot's operating system is terribly unsophisticated, so any but the most rudimentary questions leave the robot stumbling and stammering, unable to compute. And when there's no programming at all? You wind up with a photo like this.
Maybe none of this should matter. But it does.
3. The Yawn Effect
Home runs are exciting until they're not.
We've been numbed. There was a time, really not so long ago, when 500 home runs was considered an astronomical total, an easy ticket to Cooperstown. No more. There are 25 players with at least 500 home runs, and eight of them reached that mark in just the past 12 years. Granted, Rodriguez is just the seventh to hit 600 home runs. But the most recent was Junior Griffey and (be honest) ... Do you remember where you were when Junior hit No. 600? (Hint: It happened in Miami.)
I sure don't.
Granted, this list will not be growing quickly. Jim Thome may reach 600 home runs in 2011 or '12. But he may not. Manny Ramirez may reach 600 home runs in 2012 or '13. But he may not. And after those two, the next truly viable candidate is probably Albert Pujols ... who's roughly five seasons away from 600.
But this just takes us back to No. 1 on the list, right? The spate of hitters reaching 600 home runs just happens to correspond with the era in which a majority of power hitters probably used steroids (and/or their pharmaceutical brothers and cousins). And whether you think it was drugs or small strike zones or small ballparks or scaredy-cat pitchers, something seems to have been different during that (roughly) 12-year period that featured home run records dropping like so many ersatz ducks in a shooting gallery. Whether you choose to call it "The Steroid Era," this is a fact: From 1901 through 1995, there were 19 player-seasons that included at least 50 home runs; from 1996 through 2007, it happened 22 times.
In 2010, 600 home runs just isn't a particularly thrilling accomplishment. And it's even less thrilling when it's Rodriguez, who seems both joyless and unable to inspire joy.
Most of the above will still be true when Rodriguez hits No. 763 for the record ... except we don't know if he'll hit 763 home runs, which will add an element of suspense that's currently missing. After Rodriguez hit 54 homers in 2007, an eventual record seemed a fait accompli. But he hit 35 home runs in 2008, 30 in 2009, and he's on pace for 26 this season. If he doesn't arrest this trend fairly soon, 763 becomes something of a long shot. As things stand now, he'll have to average roughly 20 homers per season, through 2017.
Will he do it? Yeah, probably. He'll turn 42 in 2017 ... but he'll also earn a nifty $20 million in the last year of his contract. The Yankees will almost undoubtedly be trying to reach the World Series yet again, but they'll also be wanting to get at least some return on their $20 million. A-Rod will probably play some first base, he'll probably DH most of the time, and he'll probably hit 15-20 home runs. Which, if it wasn't enough in 2016, should be enough in 2017.
Then again, there's one interesting spanner that might get thrown into the works. Not that money really matters to the Yankees, but by 2016 and '17 they might be just a little tired of signing those huge paychecks for a player in his early 40s whom nobody really likes all that much. To the point where management might not be particularly charitable with the playing time ... particularly considering the $6 million bonus Rodriguez would earn with Home Run No. 755 ... and the $6 million more, eight home runs later.
Will the Yankees go out of their way to spend an extra $12 million? Can they possibly justify doing that, if more fans aren't showing up and those extra home runs cost millions of dollars and a few wins?
These questions mostly go away if Rodriguez returns to hitting 35-40 homers every season. But if he limps toward the record, what happens in 2017 might be a lot more interesting than what's happened in 2010.