A-Rod belts historic 500th homer
Yanks slugger becomes 22nd member of prestigious club
NEW YORK -- By the time Alex Rodriguez's already-illustrious career reaches its conclusion, his 500th home run will likely be but a memorable milestone, a stop-off on the way to an ultimate destination.
Rodriguez completed his ascension to become the 22nd member of baseball's 500-homer club on Saturday, slugging the first pitch he saw from the Royals' Kyle Davies into the left-field seats for a three-run homer.
For Rodriguez, the conclusion of his personal chase for 500 came with equal parts celebration and relief. He had waited eight days and 28 at-bats for the envisioned achievement to become reality, with sellout crowds all week begging Rodriguez -- the Major League leader in home runs and RBIs -- to pump one more ball out of Yankee Stadium.
"The energy of the fans just put it in perspective a little bit," Rodriguez said. "It seemed like they cared more about it than I did. For me, I wanted to do it at home. I knew it would come at some point this year, but with two days remaining before we go on the road, I wanted to make sure we did it at home."
With expectations following each plate appearance since hitting No. 499 on July 25 at Kansas City, Rodriguez admitted he had tried to will himself to just slug one more, a task that proved more difficult than anticipated in the five or so games he tried it.
Instead, Rodriguez reached his plateau the same way he'd worked there -- naturally. Focusing on his regular swing and simply trying to hit the ball hard, Rodriguez accomplished his goal and learned a little something in the process.
"I've conceded the fact that you can't will yourself to hit a home run. I tried hard for about five days," Rodriguez said, drawing laughter throughout a small room in the bowels of the ballpark.
The first pitch from Davies met the criteria for a tight swing, as Rodriguez clubbed a high, arcing shot down the left-field line. In the Yankees' dugout, Joe Torre instantly told bench coach Don Mattingly, "That's it!", but Rodriguez wasn't quite so convinced -- pausing at home plate, Rodriguez angled his neck, expecting to see the ball tail to the left of the yellow foul pole, like some errant golf shot rifling off toward the woods.
"I hadn't hit one in so long, I didn't know if it was going to be foul or fair," Rodriguez said. "I definitely thought, because I've been hooking the ball a little bit, where that ball started -- last week, that ball probably would have hooked foul about 20 feet."
It did not, soaring into the sky before falling into a pack of frenzied Yankees fans. Rodriguez raised his hands in the air, accepting congratulations from first-base coach Tony Pena before clapping and grinning as he rounded the bases, a deafening roar filling the stadium while, in the stadium audio booth, the theme from "The Natural" was cued.
"It was great," Torre said. "He stood there and watched it, and we all did. You just felt it was coming, once he started burying himself in the games, you just had a sense he was having a lot better at-bats. It was great to get it out of the way."
After his trot, A-Rod was greeted first at home plate by Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu, both on board for the historic blast. The entire Yankees roster followed suit, a random assemblage having spilled out of the dugout and onto the grass in celebration.
Embraced by his teammates, Rodriguez waved and blew a kiss to the roaring Yankee Stadium crowd -- for his wife, Cynthia, it turned out, who had missed the home run but witnessed his trot -- and pumped his fists while accepting the warm wishes of yet another Bronx curtain call.
Finally, taking a seat on the dugout bench next to Jeter, an expression of sudden relaxation appeared to wash over Rodriguez's face. Mission accomplished.
"I think there was a lot of relief," said teammate Johnny Damon. "The changing of the balls with the umpires, and the 3-1 sliders, and all those tough pitches. The pitchers did a great job, and I'm glad he got to jump on the first pitch he saw today. He had tremendous backspin on it. He didn't hit it as well as he could, but he just got enough."
Indeed, consider this chapter closed -- at least, until 600.
How realistic is that? With Rodriguez having become the youngest player to reach the 500-homer milestone, doing so at 32 years, eight days and surpassing Jimmie Foxx's previous record (32 years, 338 days), the sky would appear to be his limit.
Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, is among those who believe that A-Rod will eventually earn a spot as baseball's all-time home run leader -- in fact, seven years ago, when Rodriguez was searching for a new home on the free-agent market, Boras authored a noted leather-bound book projecting where Rodriguez would individually head over the length of his future contracts.
Then, Rodriguez was envisioned in print as surpassing Henry Aaron's 755 home runs. Surely, any future version will need revision to include Barry Bonds' eventual total.
"Back when he was in Seattle and he came to the big leagues at such a young age, we started fiddling with this," Boras said. "All of a sudden, he started getting home runs in the 40s in his early 20s. It's something most players don't get, so we knew he was a precocious player.
"The key thing is, he's not a traditional power hitter body type. He's not the power hitter that carries the bulk, so the ligaments, tendons, the athleticism remains. When you're looking at the 600-and-over club now, those are all outfielders. When you look at a guy who's done it on the dirt, that type of athlete, that's where the physicality and strength conditioning lock in."
Kicking at the dirt of the mound while the game awaited resumption, Davies -- who lasted just three innings against the Yankees' burgeoning offense -- was less than pleased with his place in history, spoiling his own Royals and American League debut after being shuttled in via trade from Atlanta.
"I was trying to get a double play, a sinker down and in, and the ball came back over the middle a little bit," Davies said. "It's probably not the right pitch to him. We talked about it after the inning and maybe go up a little bit more and try to jam him. But with that ball down like that, he can get extended and that's what he did."
The celebration of the chase created external pressure for Rodriguez, who spoke critically about the continued procession of specially marked baseballs dumped into umpires' pockets before his at-bats, and the oceans of flashbulbs that lit stadiums during each pitch of his night plate appearances. At the least, they were a minor annoyance; more likely, a significant distraction.
It may have all seemed worth it when, after the Yankees' 16-8 slugfest victory over the Royals, Rodriguez picked up a clubhouse phone and accepted well-wishes from Commissioner Bud Selig, just minutes after joining a congratulatory conference call with owner George Steinbrenner, his sons Hank and Hal, plus team president Randy Levine.
"It was brief," Rodriguez said of his conversation with Steinbrenner. "It was nice. It was very nice. He was happy -- happy about the win and the 500th, and proud I did it as a Yankee."
Rodriguez became just the third player to hit his 500th home run in a Yankees uniform, joining Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle -- a fact he said he had only learned recently. Asked what it means to him, Rodriguez quickly replied, "It means the world."
"To do it at home and to wear this beautiful uniform that I appreciate and respect so much, it's special," Rodriguez said. "New York is a special place. I've had my trials and tribulations here in New York, I've learned from them. I've had some great times, I've had some good times and I've had some tough times.
"A day like today kind of brings it full circle. Maybe there's a happy ending for me somewhere."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.