Rodriguez’ 600th homer assured, but what’s next?
NEW YORK — Any day now, Alex Rodriguez will hit his 600th home run, putting him in the company of just six other sluggers to reach that mark. Some of the history-makers are dirty, others like Hank Aaron will be eternally revered.
A-Rod is one of the darker angels, a fact he doesn’t dispute. Following his confession of steroid use from 2001-2003, the Yankees’ third baseman forfeited any legitimate claim to Barry Bonds’ all-time record — even if there was a diabolical symmetry between them. One corrupt record was bound to be replaced by another.
But A-Rod’s countdown to 762 seems less important now, because it’s impossible to know how many of his homers weren’t chemically enhanced. And second, no one’s sure Rodriguez has another 164 homers in him, not at the diminished rate he’s hitting them.
Rodriguez’ decline in his age-34 season has been slow and insidious, but it’s nevertheless been unmistakable. He’s hit just 15 HRs, which puts him on a pace to finish with fewer than 30 for the first time since 1997, back when he was a 21-year-old shortstop in Seattle.
Almost every other aspect of Rodriguez’s offensive game has come down a notch, as well, including his batting average (30 points under his career mark), slugging percentage (81 points) and on-base percentage plus slugging (121 points). Rodriguez has virtually stopped stealing bases (just four attempts all year) and his defense, while still respectable, is no longer Gold Glove caliber.
It’s true, the Yankees aren’t exactly suffering from A-Rod’s (relative) decay; they’re still the American League’s No. 2 offense behind the Red Sox. But the Bombers’ firepower is largely due to Robinson Cano’s career year. The second baseman is so dangerous to opposing pitchers, he should’ve given A-Rod the kind of lineup protection cleanup hitters die for.
Publicly, the coaching staff still speaks confidently of the break-out month that’s coming, one of those 10-12 home run orgies that’ll remind everyone of Rodriguez’s past greatness. Hitting instructor Kevin Long says, “there’s no doubt in my mind Alex is still capable of that. It’s going to come.”
To be fair, Rodriguez has worked tirelessly to refine his mechanics; if there was a direct link between effort and results, Rodriguez would’ve been the home run king long ago.
But A-Rod is learning that sweat is no match for laws of nature. Every 30-something athlete hits the same wall, some sooner than others, where the muscles don’t fire as quickly. It’s a subtle betrayal of the reflexes, certainly not dramatic enough to ruin A-Rod. But he’s no longer realistically being compared to Albert Pujols, just as he’s no longer the best third baseman in the AL East (it’s the Rays’ Evan Longoria).
Hitting .274 with only better-than-average power isn’t exactly how A-Rod envisioned latter stages of his career. Barring a long hot streak, Rodriguez’s trend line will have the Yankees wondering how much he’ll look like at 40. He is, after all, signed for another seven years. From the day he agreed to his 10-year extension in 2007, Rodriguez gave off an aura of invincibility of a can’t-miss, future home run champion who, unlike Bonds, was clean.
It was a marketing bonanza just waiting to happen. All ARod had to do was stay healthy and keep denting those fastballs. But then came the steroids scandal, followed by hip surgery. And now it’s time to pick up the check: a slow crawl to No. 600, which isn’t just accompanied by an asterisk, it feels empty to everyone who’s along for the ride. Maybe even to Rodriguez himself.