New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez on Wednesday became only the seventh player in Major League Baseball history to hit 600 career home runs, and the youngest ever to reach that milestone. And most of baseball fandom yawned — which speaks well of America’s serious baseball fans.
In baseball, history haunts the present every moment of every day. The ghosts of games past, of players and performances, hover not only in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, but everywhere the game is played. They don’t emerge from the dugouts or rise up through the outfield grass; they are conjured by the minds of the fans.
The romance of the game is one reason. We all remember the players we idolized as children, and we know the stories of the players from eras past that we read about, or that our fathers and grandfathers spoke of with gleamy-eyed reverence. Another is the continuity of statistical records. The relative consistency of the records allows fans and writers to compare players from different eras, and that keeps the old greats alive in the greater fan consciousness.
And so when A-Rod hit his 600th homer, a very large portion of serious fans automatically placed it in its historical context, which is this: In more than a century, only three players hit 600 home runs; in the last eight years, four additional players have done so.
The 600-club is not as exclusive as it used to be. Only a few years ago, its members were Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. In the last eight years Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., and now Alex Rodriguez have joined it. In the steroid era, fans have milestone fatigue.
Ken Griffey Jr. has never been linked to steroids. But Sammy Sosa tested positive for them, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters wrote a book documenting Barry Bonds’ extensive steroid use, and Rodriguez has admitted using them for a few seasons. In only eight years, the 600 club went from an elite group of people who earned entry the hard way to one nearly half-filled with cheaters. The country club let in Rodney Dangerfield.
Baseball fans don’t put players on pedestals anymore. They put the game on a pedestal. The game is pure, even if the players aren’t. A lot of the reluctance to idolize players has to do with the taint of steroids, and a lot has to do with the media. When every detail of a player’s life is recorded by a reporter or photographer, the blemishes show. And A-Rod has plenty of blemishes. In addition to his steroid use, he’s shown himself to be the sort of self-absorbed man-child no one wants to root for.
With players like Bonds and A-Rod juicing their way into the record books and acting off the field like all-around jerks, what’s there to get happy about when they reach a historic milestone? A 600th homer looks just like a sixth homer. Why get excited about it? Fans get emotionally invested in such feats when they have an emotional investment in the players who achieve them. Who is emotionally invested in A-Rod’s success, other than A-Rod?
A-Rod is a star that every baseball fan expected to hit not just 600 homers, but possibly well more than 700, almost since his debut. That he got to 600 is no surprise. But there would’ve been joy in watching him get there had he not made it so hard to like him. That he hit number 600 after admitting to steroid use, after years of offending fans with his arrogance and lack of charm, and after three of his contemporaries beat him to it explains most of why fans reacted in such a ho-hum manner to his achievement of this formerly colossal milestone.
In 17 seasons, Alex Rodriguez has averaged 43 home runs every 162 games (one more than Bonds’ career average). His production is down in the past three seasons, and he has only 17 homers so far this year. If he can average 30 a season from this season on, he’ll surpass Bonds’ record of 762 at age 40. If he can play until age 42, as Bonds did, he’d retire with more than 800, a figure unimaginable before the steroid era. (Although Babe Ruth, who averaged 46 homers every 162 games, almost certainly would’ve gotten there had he spent his first five seasons entirely in the outfield rather than mostly on the mound.)
If A-Rod achieves this feat and becomes the most prolific home run hitter in history, he will receive media coverage Paris Hilton would envy, but the adoration of most baseball fans will not come with it. Fans love the players that are lovable, not the players who achieve the most success. That’s why, no matter how much he achieves, A-Rod will never be more beloved than Ken Griffey Jr., who unceremoniously retired this year at age 40 with 630 home runs because he felt he could no longer contribute to the success of his team.
On the whole, baseball fans value character over achievement. Barry Bonds and A-Rod never understood that, but the fan reaction to the steroid era shows it. If the young players coming into the league now get that, there is hope that one day some slugger will replace Bonds and A-Rod in the record books and win the hearts of fans, too. If a player can hit 800 home runs, anything can happen.