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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Alex Rodriguez enjoying his milestones, but he can't escape PED talk

Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees salutes the fans

Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees salutes the fans with a curtain call after his 3,000th career hit, a first-inning home run, against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on Friday, June 19, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Alex Rodriguez can never be the equal of Derek Jeter in terms of championship pedigree and a spotless, Cooperstown-worthy legacy. But for one night, A-Rod was able to match the former Yankees captain, figuratively tugging on his pinstriped shirttail by sending hit No. 3,000 about five rows deep into the rightfield stands.

Four years earlier, Jeter's milestone hit, also a home run, landed in the leftfield seats, but you get the idea. Rodriguez is trying to create a better, brighter future for himself, and Friday night's stirring home run was another deposit in that account.

But a checkered past and PED-stained resume can't be swatted away like the 95-mph, center-cut fastball from Justin Verlander that A-Rod belted on the first pitch he saw Friday night.

When the Jeter link was mentioned to Rodriguez afterward, he had his best line, which also was an indication of how much easier all this is for A-Rod now.

"The thing I was thinking about was Jeet's guy," said Rodriguez, referring to the fan who caught the captain's homer and immediately gave it back. "That's the guy I needed here. I wasn't so lucky."

We know there's only so far Rodriguez can take this, and to his credit, so does he. That's why he seems to be savoring every minute, along with providing his typical dramatic flair.

On May 1, when he tied Willie Mays with home run No. 660, he beat the Red Sox with the Monster blast at Fenway Park. And Friday night, with Yankee Stadium filled to near capacity to witness history, he entertained the crowd of 44,588 as best he could.

It played out like another chapter from A-Rod's flawed fairy tale, a fallen superstar back on the rise. The fans ushered him to the plate in the first inning with a standing ovation and remained on their feet as Rodriguez dug himself into the batter's box, where the suspense immediately turned to exhilaration on his first swing.

"Everything about this year has been a surprise," Rodriguez said. "I've never enjoyed the game as much as I have this year."

The smile certainly seems genuine, and why not? Rodriguez has been telling us forever that he loves playing baseball, so now that he's getting to do that again, on a daily basis, there's no reason to doubt him.

The Yankees have done little to draw attention to A-Rod's milestones, but Friday night's rather modest celebration was fine for him. Rodriguez got to hear the roar of the crowd as he circled the bases, high-fived and hugged most of his teammates in front of the dugout, then emerged a few moments later for a curtain call, his arms extended.

"You want the guys to respect you for what you're doing today," he said. "I don't want them to respect me for what I did 10 or 20 years ago. I'm doing everything in my power to prepare, to work hard and to finish my career where I can be proud and do it the right way."

A-Rod has told us a million times that he never thought any of those things would be possible again after what he went through -- without ever mentioning, of course, the words Biogenesis, steroids or PEDs. But that's all included in his permanent record, along with 3,000 hits, 667 homers and 2,004 RBIs.

Do any of those numbers exist without the other, illicit part of the A-Rod equation? Nobody knows for sure. We assume what we're seeing now is real, and as long as A-Rod keeps doing it, we'll wonder what might have been if he had stayed on a clean, Cooperstown-bound track.

Like the only other Yankee to reach 3,000 hits, in that same memorable fashion.

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