After deep valley, A-Rod reaches peak

NEW YORK -- When the 600th home run of his career landed in the netting over Monument Park, Alex Rodriguez felt a mixture of exhilaration and relief. He knew he had been pressing over the past 12 games and 46 at-bats, just trying to will No. 600 across so he could return to being the new-and-improved, quieter-off-the-field A-Rod.

The struggles had culminated with an 0-for-17 streak that coincided with the Yankees' three-game losing streak. Instead of it being the joy of 600, he had been joyless for nearly two weeks.

"They really haven't been a lot of fun," Rodriguez said.

But then he got a 2-0, made-to-order, 85 mph fastball from Blue Jays starter Shaun Marcum in the first inning on Wednesday and nailed a no-doubt-about-it, two-run shot over the 408-foot sign in center.

Rodriguez, 35, became the youngest player ever to join the 600 home run club. He is also the first to have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs in his career.

Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa have been linked to PEDs, but have never admitted to usage.

With relief and excitement filling his body, A-Rod arrived at home and hugged Derek Jeter, who scored in front of him. All his teammates spilled out of the dugout to embrace the moment with No. 13. Next, he would wave his helmet in appreciation of a curtain call.

When A-Rod returned to the dugout, he shared a second hug with Jeter. The two had talked Tuesday night -- after A-Rod had slumped to 0-for-17 and 46 homerless at-bats -- about chasing records.

A-Rod's slump was more than twice as long as Willie Mays', whose 21 at-bats were the previous record between 599 and 600.

"You can tell he has been trying to do it," said Jeter, implying A-Rod had been pressing.

On Tuesday night, Jeter explained how he dealt with breaking Lou Gehrig's Yankees hit record last year. It is a conversation that is hard to imagine happening a few years back when the two were foes after being friends early in their careers.

The whole 600 experience has reminded A-Rod of where he was before the Sports Illustrated PED story combined with his hip surgery to totally jolt his career, his place in history and his chase at the record.

He now looks at the lowest valley of his life as a career turning point because he adopted an attitude that emphasized winning over personal accomplishments.

"I think for the most part I have found a niche in the clubhouse," said Rodriguez, who emphasized that the sweep-avoiding 5-1 win over the Blue Jays was most important to him. "I have found a way of doing things that has worked much better for me, which is let my play do the talking and a lot less talking to you guys. In the last 10 days, it has been exactly the opposite. I've been doing a lot of talking and not much out on the field."

One aspect Rodriguez didn't have to talk his way through was getting the 600th home run ball. Security guard Frank Babilonia picked up the ball, which eliminated any chances of haggling.

There was also symmetry on Wednesday for A-Rod because No. 500 came exactly three years ago off Kansas City's Kyle Davies.

A-Rod is the seventh player to reach 600 homers and the second Yankee. Babe Ruth hit No. 600 on Aug. 21, 1931, off the St. Louis Browns' George Blaeholder. Rodriguez's 600th off Marcum was his 255th as a Yankee.

Ruth was the second-fastest to 600 homers after Rodriguez. Rodriguez turned 35 on July 27. Ruth was 36 when he hit 600. Rodriguez has seven years remaining on his current contract to chase Bonds' 762.

The chase for the home run record comes with mixed emotions in the steroids era, leaving the question out there: If A-Rod could have a do-over, would his trek to 600 be different?

"That's a loaded question," Rodriguez said. "I sat down with you guys at the press conference last year and to this day -- and I'll say it now -- that was probably the most difficult day of my entire life, obviously of my career. I said at that press conference, there are certain things that I would like to go back and change, but the truth of the matter is that none of us can go back and change time. But I knew that with the green that I had in front of me, I would be able to rewrite some of the chapters in my life and in my career and try to do things right."

On Wednesday, he joined an exclusive club of seven, but he seemed to be more excited about receding to his small, quiet niche in the clubhouse.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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