CLEVELAND - The sport without a clock always has considered itself timeless. No matter what decade, century or millennium it was, baseball always has used the same measuring stick - its treasury of statistics. Across the eras, cold, hard numbers always have been the last word.
But now, numbers are where red-hot arguments start. Such as this one: What are we supposed to make of Alex Rodriguez's chase for 600 home runs? Are his 600 homers as weighty as Babe Ruth's and Henry Aaron's or as flimsy as Sammy Sosa's?
Do we adjust for inflation, as if we're comparing gas prices from 1960 to now? Does Rodriguez's mark require an asterisk because some untold number of his homers were chemically aided? Or do we just say the heck with it, acknowledge that everyone was using steroids during A-Rod's era and call it all a wash?
That is something every fan will answer individually. History will sort it out. And history will have its hands full because it sure looks as if Rodriguez is going to be the all-time home run king someday.
He entered Monday night's game as the youngest ever with 599. As Joe Girardi said in the afternoon, "I would bet that he'll hit one more."
"I'm not really concerned about it,'' Rodriguez said after going 0-for-4. "It's going to come, whether it's this week or next week or next month. At some point, it will come. The important thing for me is to stay within the game and take my walks. It all comes back to the same fundamentals."
A smart betting person would say that after Rodriguez - who turns 35 Tuesday - hits one more, he is going to hit at least 163 more after that and surpass Barry Bonds' tainted record of 762. Baseball fans and executives will have to decide just how tainted Rodriguez's total is.
What he has going for him is that unlike Bonds and Sosa, he actually admitted to having used steroids. What he has going against him is that unlike Ruth and Aaron and Willie Mays, he admitted to having used steroids. Does he get points for being honest (at least somewhat honest) or does he lose points for having cheated baseball's hallowed spirit of numbers?
This peanut stand says it is just too soon to tell. We have to see how the rest of his career goes and how the sport continues to deal with the substances that allegedly turned Bonds from a lithe, sinewy athlete to a muscle-bound slugger. One thing you won't read again from this scribbler is what you saw on Aug. 5, 2007: "A-Rod is our best hope . . . The Yankee who hit his 500th home run yesterday is the best chance we have to wipe Barry Bonds and his sorry milestone right out of our minds - and the record book."
Oops. This home run business is more complicated on the verge of 600 than it was at 500.
To be fair, it did look and feel like a big deal Monday night. Rodriguez preferred not to talk about it before the game, before or after he hit nine home runs in batting practice. During the game, there was an air of excitement all four times he came to the plate. The reaction grew more pronounced with each at-bat. When Rodriguez batted in the seventh, at around dusk, Progressive Field sparkled with camera flashes on every pitch. It happened again in the ninth.
"I think the biggest thing for us," Rodriguez said after the 3-2 victory, "is I'd rather not hit a home run and win than hit a home run and lose."
There were more witnesses (27,224) than when Mays became only the second person to reach 600. The Giants icon accomplished it before only 4,779 in San Diego on Sept. 22, 1969, when he homered as a pinch hitter for rookie George Foster.
Mays, according to the recent biography by James S. Hirsch, received many gifts that night from the Adirondack Bat Company. Company representative Frank Torre, Joe's older brother, had followed Mays for six weeks, waiting for that moment.
For Torre back then, baseball sure didn't seem timeless. But the 600 home run mark was important enough for his firm to pay $4,200 in expenses so he could witness it. We can't tell if it means as much today.