Sul­tan of sy­ringe

A-Rod 75 home runs from match­ing Bonds’ ca­reer record

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - BASEBALL - By Ron­ald Blum

TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Ro­driguez plants his right foot in the bat­ter’s box, takes a swing, steps in and taps the plate. His name is an­nounced, and fans re­spond with seven sec­onds of ap­plause.

Af­ter two years as a scoundrel, he’s once again a star in the minds of many New York Yan­kees fans.

One year af­ter his re­turn from a drug sus­pen­sion, A-Rod is ap­proach­ing the home run marks of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. He hit 33 last year, his most since 2010, and en­ters this sea­son with 687, just 75 from match­ing Bonds’ record.

“I know he gets there in three years,” Yan­kees great Reg­gie Jack­son said. “I think it would be shock­ing if he got there in two.”

A-Rod says he plans to re­tire af­ter the 2017 sea­son. But he also says he could change his mind. Sur­pass­ing Bonds could be too al­lur­ing.

Last spring, Ro­driguez’s name was ab­sent from items in the Yan­kees’ gift shops as the team pre­pared to fight over a US$6-mil­lion mar­ket­ing pay­ment trig­gered by his 660th home run — match­ing Wil­lie Mays’ to­tal. This March, blue Ro­driguez bat­ting prac­tice jer­seys that cost $129.95 sold out at Stein­bren­ner Field, and the team doesn’t ap­pear to an­tic­i­pate a dis­pute if A-Rod reaches the next pay­ment level for match­ing Ruth at 714.

Ro­driguez turns 41 in July and in the post-steroids era al­ready is at an age where feet and bats slow, where balls that once soared over walls are caught on the warn­ing track. His hair­line has started to re­cede and he keeps his locks trimmed, lim­it­ing hints of grey to a min­i­mum.

As much as he tries to con­cen­trate on the next game, the next at-bat and the next pitch, the big pic­ture in­fil­trates his thoughts, like wa­ter start­ing to trickle through cracks in a dam.

“There are things you just can’t help to think about. Ob­vi­ously, they’re there. They’re big num­bers,” he said. “But the goal for me this year is ex­actly what it was last year: come out, work re­ally hard, be in good shape, bet­ter be pro­duc­tive in the mid­dle of the lineup and try to help us win games. And what­ever the num­bers add up to, they add up to.”

His­tory sug­gests he might fall short of Bonds’ 762.

Bonds holds the record for most home runs af­ter turn­ing 40 with 79 — Ro­driguez al­ready has 10 since the big birth­day July 27. The mark for most in a sea­son who al­ready was 40 on open­ing day is 29, shared by Ted Wil­liams and Raul Ibanez.

“Of course, I’m sure it’s in his head,” Yan­kees man­ager Joe Gi­rardi said. “You hope that it doesn’t weigh heav­ily, and that he’s able just to go out and re­lax and play.” Rest and re­lax­ation. Shifted from third base to des­ig­nated hit­ter, Ro­driguez spent just 11 in­nings in the field last sea­son. He played in 151 games, his highest to­tal since 2007. Be­fore the sus­pen­sion, he had gone on the dis­abled list six times in six years for a string of ail­ments that in­cluded op­er­a­tions on both hips, one knee surgery, a strained calf and a bro­ken hand.

Still, Ro­driguez tailed off in the last two months of the sea­son, like a leaf shriv­el­ing in the sum­mer heat and fall­ing to ground at the first hint of au­tumn cool. Af­ter home­r­ing off the Texas Rangers’ Matt Har­ri­son for his sixth birth­day homer, he ended his first night as a 40-year- old with a .276 bat­ting av­er­age, 24 homers and 59 RBI. A-Rod hit .208 with nine homers and 27 RBI the rest of the sea­son.

“I think it’s eas­ier this year, just be­cause we both kind of know the rigours of his job and what he needs,” Gi­rardi said. “When he gets out of his legs, you know it’s maybe a time to give him one day off or two days off.”

Ro­driguez got to heal while sit­ting out the 2014 sea­son, an en­forced ab­sence in­flicted by then-com­mis­sioner Bud Selig for vi­o­la­tions of base­ball’s drug agree­ment and labour con­tract. When A-Rod re­turned last spring train­ing, he went out of his way to act humbly and speak con­tritely, of­fer­ing mil­que­toast re­sponses that sounded as if re­fined in fo­cus groups to re­move any trace of ego or con­tro­versy.

He be­came an el­der states­man on a mid­dling Yan­kees team that limped into the play­offs and was elim­i­nated by Hous­ton in the AL wild-card game. Young play­ers seek­ing ad­vice grav­i­tated to him in the club­house, in­quir­ing in both English and Span­ish.

“He’s been talk­ing to ev­ery­body,” Yan­kees team­mate Car­los Bel­tran said. “The two years that I’ve had a chance to play with him, he’s been great.”

Ro­driguez was af­fa­ble as a guest an­a­lyst on Fox dur­ing last year’s play­offs. But whether on tele­vi­sion or not, A-Rod won’t say whether he thinks Aaron’s 755 or Bonds’ 762 are within reach. When he re­sponds to ques­tions, Ro­driguez de­lays be­fore start­ing his re­ply, as if to fil­ter out many of his thoughts.

“I don’t al­low my­self to think that far ahead,” he said. “Lit­er­ally, when you’re 40, you’re day to day, so you can’t get too ex­cited.”

FRANK FRANKLIN II / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Back from ex­ile and a force in the New York Yan­kees lineup at age 40, Alex Ro­driguez is 75

home runs from ty­ing Barry Bonds’ ca­reer record. He has two sea­sons re­main­ing on his con­tract

with New York.

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