TAMPA, Fla. — As he has passed some of baseball’s all-time greats on the career milestones lists, Alex Rodriguez has pretty much said some version of the same thing. That he’s honored to be mentioned in the same sentence with Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Lou Gehrig or whichever Hall of Famer he happens to pass in various offensive categories.
But the next one is different. The next target on the all-time home runs list is Babe Ruth.
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“There is no comparison,” A-Rod said. “There is only one Babe Ruth.’’
Funny thing is, most people would say there’s only one A-Rod.
As he enters what probably will be his next-to-last season with the Yankees, Rodriguez has 687 home runs, which is fourth on the all-time list. Ruth is next at 714.
Rodriguez, who hit 33 home runs in a remarkable comeback season in 2015, needs 28 to pass The Babe. After that, it’s a longer way to Aaron at 755 and Barry Bonds at 762.
Rodriguez will turn 41 in July. He has one more year after this one on his Yankees contract. He doesn’t play the field anymore. He just hits.
He is the author of one of the most incredible turnarounds in sports history. A-Rod the former pariah is now A-Rod the team leader and elder statesman.
The player who was suspended for the entire 2014 season for performance-enhancing drug use and employed a scorched-earth strategy of lawsuits to battle Major League Baseball now makes public appearances for MLB with commissioner Rob Manfred at his side.
The Yankees, who would have done anything to get out from under Rodriguez’s massive contract, gave him a day last year to honor his 3,000th hit. They recently had him tape a television commercial to argue their side in a dispute with a cable TV company.
He was a revelation as a television analyst during the postseason. Yankees manager Joe Girardi suggested recently that Rodriguez could be a manager or “a great hitting coach” after his playing days.
“I think he’s really going to miss it,” Girardi said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw him in uniform.”
For a year after he was ensnared in the Biogenesis mess and faced the wrath of baseball, Rodriguez seemingly did everything wrong from a public relations perspective.
Since his suspension ended, he has seemingly done everything right.
Quick show of hands: Who saw that coming?
Unlike last spring training, when the Yankees and A-Rod had no idea if he could still play and his every move was watched, Rodriguez enters 2016 as the team’s everyday designated hitter. The only questions this year are baseball questions, the normal ones you get about whether an aging player can stay healthy and be productive.
The A-Rod circus, it seems, has left the building.
“I feel really good,” he said in mid-March. “I feel grateful. I’m very humble and flattered to be in the position that I’m in right now and really enjoying this team a lot. This team, we’ve got a good mix of guys. I feel like we don’t have any real freshmen. The freshmen are now sophomores and we have a bunch of juniors and seniors and I think hopefully that our goal as we break camp is to really unify the bunch, because together we can do some special things.”
That doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. Rodriguez did homer in his first at-bat of spring training. And he did say the 2017 season was going to be his last and then backtracked later that very same day.
Other than that, it was a quiet spring. After two hip surgeries, A-Rod feels good physically, although he laughed when someone suggested he looked as spry as ever.
“I wouldn’t go crazy,” he said. “I am 40. But I think Joe did a great job with me last year. I think we learned a lot. Last year, we tried to play a little third, a little first. I think this year we’ve got a little more defined role and I think that will be helpful. You focus on having four good at-bats, maybe five. Try to be productive. Moving all over the infield, for me that just created a lot of stress.”
Rodriguez’s days with a glove are over. Even that was accomplished last year without rancor after Rodriguez’s ill-fated attempt to learn how to play first base. Now, he laughs about it. Laughs at himself.
“For me, it was the most challenging move I’ve ever – I’m not going to say ‘do,’ I’m going to say, ‘tried to do,’ “ he said. “It wasn’t very pretty. For some reason, I just couldn’t get it done. It was strange. I felt really odd over there. I couldn’t even catch the ball. I think it was against Boston, Joe said, ‘OK, that’s enough of that. No more of that.’ They took the mitt away and they never let me see it again.”
Post-suspension A-Rod is humble, helpful, charming. Seemingly at peace.
Unlike Ruth, whose foibles and indiscretions were covered up and papered over by the press of his time, A-Rod’s every transgression has been painstakingly chronicled.
When Ruth collapsed and ended up in the hospital in 1925, the papers wrote that it was from eating too many hot dogs. A legend was born. Hitting a home run for a sick kid? Calling his own shot in the World Series? People believed because they wanted to. They wanted a larger-than-life hero.
The world has changed. Now, possibly the best player of this generation will never live down being a twice-caught steroid user. He may never be elected to the Hall of Fame.
He may pass Ruth, Aaron and Bonds and become the game’s No. 1 home run hitter. Or he may flame out or get hurt and pass none of them.
“The end,’’ A-Rod told Newsday in January, “has a funny way of tapping you on the shoulder when you least expect it.’’
There probably are a few chapters left to A-Rod’s story, though. You try and predict how it’s going to end.