The Yankees always offer plenty of sideshow. There's no shortage of star players. There's New Yankee Stadium, with its cramped dimensions and still-present new-stadium smell (Kansas City opted for a new-stadium-smell air freshener with those 2008 renovations). There's Lady Gaga showing up half-dressed, swilling whiskey, talking with Robinson Cano. There's The Great Rivera with that cutter and sub-1.00 ERA.
Then there's Alex Rodriguez, a player with massive talent and an equally-massive salary. He's been linked to Madonna. He was seen with Cameron Diaz over the All-Star break... then stole the camera phone of the president of Kansas City's Sports Radio 810, who had taken a picture of the two. He swatted at Bronson Arroyo's glove in the ALCS in an effort to get to first. He yelled "I got it! I got it!" behind a fielder camped under a popup. He nearly had a donnybrook with Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden over the route he used to trot back to the dugout. He was busted for steroid use. He's going to be in a movie. He hit a home run to put his team ahead and started to celebrate what he though was a walk-off home run only to learn it was only the 8th inning. He's been called A-Fraud, Stray-Rod, a choker.
He has 598 home runs.
And 3 MVP awards, and 2,621 hits, and enough big home runs to make "choker" labels laughable. Yet all this is often lost in that sea of circus performances two paragraphs above.
A-Rod has a great chance to hit his 600th career home run against the Royals, with four games against four Kansas City starters who are not Zack Greinke and that mercurial Royal bullpen. As a side note, Royal pitcher Kyle Davies gave up Rodriguez's 500th home run. He pitches Saturday, the day after Brian Bannister, who's been giving up homers at quite a clip, so there's a decent chance the lackluster Davies could yield both A-Rod's 500th and 600th home runs. I'll have to double-check, but this would surely be the first time in baseball history that a pitcher allowed both a hitter's 500th and 600th.
600 is a monumental number, as only six players have ever hit 600. It's far more lofty than even the 25-man 500 home run club. Save the disgraced Barry Bonds and the quirky Sammy Sosa, the 600 HR club could be the game's Mt. Rushmore: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey.
And yet, Rodriguez's pursuit of 600 seems to be generating little buzz, even with all the buzz to go around in the media these days. This is despite the countdown to 600 happening in about the perfect time in the sports calendar, with little big-time action going on.
There are plenty of reasons, I guess. A-Rod has always been something of a caricature, as I mentioned, with his prodigious numbers overshadowed by the aforementioned sideshows and antics. He isn't really beloved anywhere, even New York. It's hard to even say he's respected most places.
Also, he's young enough (turns 35 on July 27) that perhaps there's an idea that he's going to achieve even more impressive numbers, possibly even challenge the all-time home run record, so why get worked up over a weigh station along the climb up the long ball ladder? Plus he isn't quite hitting 'em out at the rate he typically has in his career, maybe a nod to his gradual aging. More on that in a bit.
And, to state the obvious, it's largely the steroid thing. Rodriguez splits hairs, saying he only took performance-enhancing drugs certain years. Whatever. We have Steroid Era fatigue. He's just another one of "those guys" we want to move on from. Home run chases, numbers and records may never give people the excitement they used to because we all felt so betrayed by the steroid-fueled 1998 home run chase, and then we had to sit through Bonds' uncomfortable, sluggish takedown of Aaron's hallowed career home run record.
I used to track Rodriguez's home runs about day-by-day, because I though he could break the home run record, make it "clean." This wasn't just because I'm some sanctimonious guy, but I didn't like how the fact that an obvious cheater like Bonds (who was a fine player, but he simply wouldn't have hit 762 homers without the drugs) had hurt the interest in the greatest individual record in sports. If someone not linked to performance-enhancing drugs could take back the career home run record, it would be like hitting the reset button on the Steroid Era, giving my order-liking mind some closure and the ability to move on. I think I'm not the only one who thought this way about A-Rod.
So it was a letdown when we found out he cheated. It was less "How could he do that?" and more "Another one? Can't we ever be done with this?" Even more, injuries and an oh-so-gradual decline in his home run pace raise the question of whether Rodriguez will be able to threaten the record. He's on pace for about 26 homers this year, power numbers tend to go quickly as players move into their late 30s, and he's still 164 home runs away.
So, if A-Rod keeps faltering, and if we want a cleaner, or at least more likeable, home run king, who do we look to? Of course, we have Mr. Albert Pujols, a long shot but still the kind of consistently brilliant player who would have an outside chance.
So here is the plan I came up with last year, something to watch, for what it's worth: Starting with the 2009 season, if Pujols averages 37 HRs a year for 12 years, he will have exactly 763 home runs, one more than Bonds. (Pujols has 388 as of July 21 at 9:10 p.m., already a bit ahead of that pace.) Let's call it the 2020 Plan, as Albert would break the mark in 2020 at age 40 if he was somehow able to sustain this pace. A difficult pace, no doubt, but if anyone could do it, it would be Pujols. It helped that he hit 47 last year; he needs a few more years like that as insurance for later years. Not critical obviously, and Albert will probably go down as one of the best ever even if he doesn't approach 763 homers, but it's something to watch. Here's the year-by-year of what his total would need to be at the end of the year, just in case you want to track this absurd idea:
2009 (age 29): 356
2010 (30): 393
2011 (31): 430
2012 (32): 467
2013 (33): 504
2014 (34): 541
2015 (35): 578
2016 (36): 615
2017 (37): 652
2018 (38): 689
2019 (39): 726
2020 (40): 763
One last disclaimer: THIS IS CRAZY TALK. Yes, I know, and I'm not just trying to set unrealistic standards. I'm just throwing it out there to give some perspective and because he is the game's best and most consistent hitter. Age, injuries and Pujols' great willingness to hit line drives could all derail things. If you want a more reasonable way to measure the greatness of his career, count his MVPs as they pile up, or career hits, or career average/on-base percentage, or his WAR (wins above replacement), if you're a modern type.
In any event there's something (A-Rod's 600th) to watch over the Royals no-doubt wild weekend in the Bronx and something to watch over the next, let's see, 10 and a half baseball seasons, if Albert plays that long (or more, if he plays longer.) Either way, enjoy.