Alex Rodriguez’s 650th homer a signpost on the march to infamy
Alex Rodriguez led off the fifth inning of the Yankees’ 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays Monday night with a game-tying solo home run to right field on an R.A. Dickey knuckleball. The home run was the 650th of Rodriguez’s career, putting him just ten shy of Willie Mays’ famous career total of 660, which stands as the fourth most all-time. Since Mays retired in 1973, only one man has passed that mark: all-time career leader and fellow San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds in early 2004. Bonds, of course, is the son of Mays’ late teammate Bobby Bonds and Mays’ godson, so as much as many loathed to see Bonds passing Mays due to the former’s suspected performance-enhancing drug use, at least it was all in the family.
Alex Rodriguez is another matter entirely for a variety of reasons. For one, unlike Bonds, Rodriguez has confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, admitting in March 2009 that he had used them in all three of his seasons with the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003. Put simply, while everyone was pretty sure Bonds had cheated, we know for a fact that Rodriguez did. The recent Biogenesis allegations against Rodriguez compound that public perception of Rodriguez as a cheater. His current march toward Mays’ career totals comes while he’s appealing a 211-game suspension stemming in part from his alleged use of PEDs acquired from the now-shuttered Biogenesis clinic.
To make matters worse, prior to the revelation in early 2009 that Rodriguez had failed a drug test during the supposedly anonymous survey testing in 2003 and his subsequent confession, Rodriguez was looked to as baseball’s great clean hope, the player who didn’t need PEDs to claim the all-time home run crown back from the dirty Bonds. After the 2007 season, Rodriguez was 32 years old and had hit 518 regular season home runs in his career, making him the youngest player to reach that total. It was then that he opted out of his quarter-billion-dollar contract, a decision famously announced by his agent, Scott Boras, during the final innings of that year’s World Series, in which Rodriguez was not playing.
When the Yankees resigned Rodriguez to his now-disastrous ten-year, $275 million contract that December, part of the appeal of bringing Rodriguez back was to enjoy the fruits of his climb up the all-time home run list. In fact, his contract came with unprecedented bonuses tied to his career home run totals, with $6 million bonuses for tying Mays at 660, Ruth at 714, Aaron at 755, Bonds at 762 and, for his potential record-breaking 763rd career home run, a total of $30 million worth of bonuses that, if reached, would push the value of the contract over $300 million.
When they were negotiated, those bonuses were designed to share the wealth of additional profits Rodriguez’s home run chase would bring to the Yankees. Nearly six years and two PED scandals later, the Yankees are still on the hook for those bonuses despite the fact that there is almost no one left who wants to see Rodriguez reach any of those totals and his doing so should have no impact on the Yankees’ bottom line.
It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that Rodriguez believes these bonuses are among the reasons the Yankees have been trying to end his career, as he has alleged in his grievance against the team. Indeed, there’s little chance that Rodriguez will hit the ten home runs he needs to catch Mays and earn his first bonus over the remainder of this season. Still, he’s close enough now that he would seem to be a lock to do so after returning from his suspension, be it next year or in 2015, particularly given that, if he can stay healthy, he’s likely to hit four or five more home runs in September given his pace over the last three seasons of one home run every 28 plate appearances.
That said, the Mays bonus may be the only one Rodriguez is able to trigger, even if he manages to get his suspension completely overturned. Catching Ruth would require him to hit 64 more home runs, but he has been healthy enough to hit just 37 over the last three years (41 if you credit him for four homers to come in September). With four years left on his contract and the likelihood of further injury and decline, the now 38-year-old Rodriguez is far from a lock to hit 60 more home runs even if allowed to play and would seem to have no real chance to do so should he have to serve a suspension lasting a year or more.
Still every home run Rodriguez hits brings him closer to Mays and makes him just the fifth man to ever hit that many. But his transgressions have stripped his march up the all-time leader list of its significance. Rather than a triumphant climb to history, it’s now nothing but a hollow march to infamy.