Commentary

Another milestone for Alex Rodriguez

A-Rod tied Griffey with homer 630 on Friday, but what does it really mean anymore?

Updated: April 13, 2012, 9:02 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Now, the only names above Alex Rodriguez's on the all-time home run list are Willie, Babe, Hank and Barry, and if you need the last names, you have obviously clicked on the wrong Web page.

Rodriguez's home run in the third inning of Friday's home opener at Yankee Stadium, a blast that landed in the netting above Monument Park, tied him with Ken Griffey Jr., a player who was once his teammate but now seems like a relic from a bygone era. It should have been an occasion to celebrate and one to remember.

Instead, it is one to regret, or at least one to make you wonder about what might have been.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Tim Farrell/US PresswireNow only four players in major league history have hit more home runs than Alex Rodriguez.

Because no matter how many home runs Alex Rodriguez winds up hitting by the time his contract runs out in 2017, there will always be questions about how many of those home runs are legitimate, and how many are tainted.

And with that question goes another, more important one: How great, really, was Alex Rodriguez, and would he have been just as good without the help of his friendly neighborhood druggist? We'll never know the answer to that one, and for that A-Rod has no one to blame but himself.

"Look, the mistakes I've made I can never change," he said Friday, after he had gone 3-for-4 with that solo bomb in the Yankees' 5-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels. "We've all made mistakes and I'm accountable for mine. I think the key for me, from that press conference on, is I have a rare opportunity to play for almost 10 years after that and be able to do what I do."

Asked if he had any regrets about the indelible blot he placed upon his own record, A-Rod said, "No. The one thing I can never control is the past. What I can control is what I've done for a long time."

Meaning the 285 home runs he has hit, the 904 runs he has driven in and the two MVP awards he has won since 2003, when he contends that the "experimental phase" of his career ended, the phase in which he experimented with performance-enhancing drugs.

Even if you take him at his word, that adds up to 156 home runs, 395 RBIs and one MVP that are forever to be viewed through cynical eyes.

Fair or not, Junior Griffey, whose elevator stopped at floor 630, doesn't have to face those questions, or those doubts. Nor does Willie Mays, who got off at 660, or Babe Ruth, who resided at 714, or Hank Aaron, who rode it all the way to 755. (Barry Bonds' numbers, of course, are hopelessly contaminated and therefore will not even be mentioned here.)

In fact, the biggest reason why the Yankees bid against themselves in order to tie up A-Rod for 10 more years when he opted out of his original 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers was their belief that having one of their own challenge the all-time home run record in the new Yankee Stadium would be a bonanza that would pay dividends well over their initial investment.

That may still happen, because the public has a short memory and an even looser code of ethics than many ballplayers, especially when it comes to a player wearing their favorite laundry.

But the fact remains that no one knows better than Alex Rodriguez that his very legitimacy as a ballplayer has been forever compromised, and by no one but him.

There's something rather sad about that, and sadder still when you recall his stated reason for deciding to use Primabolan (or "boli," as he called it in his public mea culpa in spring training 2009): the "enormous pressure to perform" and live up to his record-setting contract. Simply put, Alex Rodriguez did not fully believe he was the player Tom Hicks, or most of the rest of baseball, thought he was. At least, not without a little help.

The saddest part of all is that he may have been very, very wrong. Perhaps a clean Alex Rodriguez would have been every bit as good as the dirty one turned out to be. But we will never know, and neither will he.

He is still a very good ballplayer, to be sure, although Joe Girardi's long-overdue move of flip-flopping Robinson Cano and Rodriguez in the heart of the batting order is a clear acknowledgment that the Yankees don't think he is the same ballplayer they acquired in 2004.

Girardi tried to couch the move as a strategic one designed to counter late-inning bullpen maneuvering by opposing managers, specifically the use of situational lefties. He said it would be in effect only when a right-hander starts, which is most of the time.

Which means that from this day forward, Alex Rodriguez is no longer the everyday cleanup hitter for the New York Yankees, a position he was proud of and in fact coveted.

But he responded well to the change, singling twice and scoring a run in addition to the home run, and raised his early-season average from a puny .174 to an at least respectable looking .259.

Still, in order for him to climb to the next rung on the all-time home run ladder, he will have to accomplish something this season he hasn't been able to do since 2008 -- hit more than 30 home runs in a season.

Age can do that to a player -- A-Rod will turn 37 in July -- as well as injuries, and he has had a ton of them over the past four seasons.

But so, too, can steroids, which build an athlete up only to ultimately break him down, both physically and in reputation.

Right now, Alex Rodriguez may be suffering from both effects.

"I take it one day at a time," he said. "For me, it's all about health and feeling good. There's no question in my mind that if I'm healthy and have my legs under me that I can play at a high level and help the team win."

It was pointed out to him that his steal of second base in the first inning could be a sign that he was, indeed, fully healthy again for the first time since undergoing hip surgery prior to the start of the 2009 season.

"It's either a sign I feel good or a sign of stupidity, I'm not sure which one," he said. "But my legs feel pretty good, and for me a good indication was playing on the turf for three days and feeling really good."

A-Rod's big day came on a day that was supposed to be a showcase not only for Jorge Posada, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, but also for Albert Pujols, who was making his Yankee Stadium debut as a member of the Angels, with whom he signed a 10-year, $254 million contract in the offseason. So far, Pujols is off to an anemic start -- he went 1-for-4 on Friday and is hitting .222 with no homers and two RBIs so far -- and afterward, A-Rod again cited the relentless pressure of trying to live up to an outsized contract.

"I can't speak for Pujols or any other hitter," he said. "But I think overall, you're coming into a new city, a big market with a big contract and big expectations. I think it's natural for you to try to do too much at first."

A decade ago, Alex Rodriguez tried to do too much to live up to a big contract in a new city, but the way he approached it was anything but natural.

And now, 10 years and nearly 450 home runs later, he finds mixed in with the accolades a heavy dose of doubt.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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