Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees reacts after flying...

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees reacts after flying out against the Los Angeles Angels. (July 21, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

A first-inning standing ovation as Paul Olden announced his name. Cameras flashing non-stop. Boos, as he drew ball four from Brian Bannister.

I don't know, Alex Rodriguez's quest for 600 home runs seemed to generate some buzz Friday night. Especially for something that reportedly wasn't generating any buzz.

The people spoke at Yankee Stadium - at least, before Mother Nature did - and enough of them didn't seem to mind the back story to A-Rod's potential milestone. In his five plate appearances, he went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles and a walk in a 7-1 victory.

Which is good. Because A-Rod's numbers, currently at 599 homers, should be regarded as "clean" as anyone else's.

"I'd rather it [performance-enhancing drugs] not have happened, but it did happen," said Steve Hirdt, executive vice president for Elias Sports Bureau, Major League Baseball's official statistician. "The phrase 'it is what it is' was born to be deployed at times like these."

Baseball is what it is. It's Babe Ruth outhomering entire teams in a single season, racking up huge numbers in a league that banned people of color. It's Hank Aaron owning up to trying amphetamines, and Willie Mays not ruling out that he did the same.

And, in the last 10 years, it's the 600-homer mark losing its romance. A-Rod would become the fourth person to reach that milestone since 2002, following Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. Before that point, only Aaron, Ruth and Mays had leaped that magical hurdle.

"It's something we go through as a society," Joe Girardi said. "We want to have the greatest game. We need to continue to work at it."

The "society" line would come off as trite, if only it weren't true. We're constantly yearning for a past utopia, a "clean" game, which never existed. We want to compare baseball statistics across eras, yet you couldn't have done so before Bobby Bonds even considered procreating.

To borrow a voice from the past, I interviewed the late Ernie Harwell back in December 2005. Here's what he told Newsday when I asked him about the game - and the numbers - allegedly being tarnished: "I don't think so. I think you sort of have to put it in context. Back in 1909, Ty Cobb won the so-called Triple Crown hitting a mush ball. Then Babe Ruth had the lively ball. All of those things change - the size of the ballparks, too. People sort of accept the fact now that steroids were taken. The fans didn't seem as excited as other people were."

Less than five years later, Harwell looks like a sage.

We know that A-Rod used PEDs, and that he did so at a time when baseball held no bona fide rule banning these drugs. In his confessed period, 2001-03 (although he never clarified when he stopped using in '03), we don't know how many of his 156 homers came against pitchers who were equally juiced.

It's all very messy. As is life, of course.

"The fact is, this guy's had an incredible career," Girardi said. "He still has a lot of good baseball left in him. He's putting up big numbers again this year. He put up good numbers last year. And obviously, there's testing in place."

If A-Rod hits 164 more homers to pass Bonds as the game's all-time king? Fine. If he doesn't, and Bonds remains atop the charts? Fine, too. Either way, the game will go on.

Most folks in the Bronx on Friday enjoyed a ballgame, albeit rain-interrupted, and an individual quest. They chose not to oversimplify history into some convoluted morality tale.

Good for them. And, once he gets to 600 and beyond, good for A-Rod.