A-Rod has good shot to break home-run mark after Barry does it

Posted: May 29, 2007

ON THE FIRST DAY of a recent homestand, Alex Rodriguez walked into an already bustling Yankee Stadium clubhouse and found three reporters waiting at his locker.

"Be right back," he said, and given his past good relations with the media, there was no reason to doubt him.

He returned 40 minutes later, but this time with an iPod in his ears, trying to pretend the three men standing in the same spot had disappeared. At one point, a clubhouse helper held the iPod while he dressed, and the iPod remained in his ears for the next 3 1/2 hours as the Yankees waited out a rain delay that eventually became a cancellation.

If not for the intercession of a Yankees publicist that resulted in a brief and unrevealing 5-minute session, Rodriguez

likely would have claimed the record for the longest blow-off by a major league ballplayer. More noteworthy is that the Yankees' third baseman was once considered one of the game's good guys, expansive in his answers, respectful to his inquisitors, polite and engaging.

Now the man most likely to leapfrog over Barry Bonds as the all-time leader in home runs is often guarded, occasionally hostile, and purposefully unenlightening.

"I'm having as much fun as I can, trying to keep it simple," he said that day. "And I really don't give a [bleep] about what most people are thinking or saying."

While this is a direct result of the scrutiny he has undergone over his last few seasons in New York and particularly last year - when he slumped mightily through the middle of the summer and again in the Yankees' brief stint in the playoffs - it is alarming to those who see him as the only living Jedi capable of freeing baseball's most revered record from the clutches of the scandal-scarred Bonds.

When he entered the majors at 18, Rodriguez was deemed the heir to good-guy Cal Ripken, both in ability and demeanor. And he embraced it. Now?

"Everyone made a big deal with me being on par with Cal Ripken, and I couldn't give three [bleeps]," A-Rod said that day in Yankee Stadium. "Personal records mean nothing to me . . . ''

Still only 31, Rodriguez had 483 home runs entering last night's game, including 19 this season. Already way ahead of Bonds' pace in reaching 746, A-Rod's good health, annual productivity and athleticism give him by far the best chance among today's sluggers to reach and surpass both Hank Aaron's mark of 755 and whatever Bonds eventually ends up with.

"It's funny, but I can't come up with another name that says, 'This guy has a shot at it,' " said David Vincent, the home-run guru for the Society for American Baseball Research and author of "Home Run: The Definitive History of Baseball's Ultimate Weapon."

Rodriguez currently is 24th on the all-time list. The youngest active player ahead of him, Ken Griffey Jr., is 37. Sammy Sosa is fifth, with 598 through Sunday; he is 38. Frank Thomas, 39, is 21st; he had 494. Jim Thome, 36, had 478, and Manny Ramirez, who will turn 35 tomorrow, had 477. Gary Sheffield, 38, had 464.

With 11 home runs this season, Griffey is in eighth place on the all-time list with 574, just nine behind Mark McGwire.

All of the aforementioned, besides A-Rod, would need a strong and unprecedentedly productive twilight to even approach 700 home runs.

Those younger or as young as Rodriguez have an equally daunting task. Albert Pujols, with 258 home runs at age 27, would have to average close to 35 home runs a year to reach 700 by his 40th birthday. The same age as A-Rod, Vladimir Guerrero was 135 home runs behind him through Sunday. David Ortiz, 31, and Ryan Howard, 27, would seem to be joining the hunt too late.

"Alex has a real good shot at it because he's young, and he's healthy," Vincent said. "But Griffey was that guy once, too. He just couldn't avoid walls."

Griffey reached 400 home runs early in his 12th season, at age 31. That was 7 years ago. Since then he has missed large chunks of four seasons with injuries to his legs and shoulders, the result of diving for balls and running into walls.

His home-run total reflects that.

Like Rodriguez, Griffey became more scrutinized and more guarded as his numbers rose. And yet, A-Rod, his "I don't care" proclamation nothwithstanding, his mercurial relationship with Yankees fans a matter of record, is, according to a recent USA Today poll, still the people's choice - or hope - to surpass Bonds' record.

"I hope he does," Bonds said during one of his recent press conferences. "I don't care. I'm happy with me. I'm happy with what I do. Whatever that is, I'm happy with it. Whatever someone else does, I'll be happy for them, too . . .

"A-Rod's a great player, and if anyone is capable of doing that, it's him. I can see it on TV. I've seen his face. You can see that his eyes are just different."

Unchanged, though, is Rodri-guez' physique. Bonds' physique changed strikingly as his home-run output did. In "Game of Shadows," the book detailing the BALCO investigation, authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams wrote that a Giants staff member testified that Bonds' jersey had increased from size 42 to size 52 since joining the team in 1993, his shoe size had moved from 10 1/2 to 13, and his hat size increased from 7 1/8 to 7 1/4.

If Rodriguez is the people's choice, it traces to the perception that his home runs are not performance-enhanced. He eclipsed 40 home runs in his third full season in the majors and has failed to reach that mark only twice since then. All the time, his body has remained as consistent as his numbers. And since becoming a regular in 1996, he has played in fewer than 140 games just once.

Given all this, and that his athleticism will allow him to play any position other than pitcher and catcher, Rodriguez seems a lock to surpass both Aaron and Bonds, and relatively soon.

"He can get there," Vincent said. "If he wants to."

Huh? Who wouldn't want to become immortalized? Especially if it's free of controversy? Especially if the people are behind you?

Listening to Rodriguez that rainy day in New York, recalling the affable way he greeted inquisitors just a few years before, Hank Aaron's infamous words as he approached Babe Ruth's record came to mind.

"I used to love to come to the ballpark," Aaron said. "Now I hate it."

Said Vincent of A-Rod, "Who knows, he may not want to play until he's 39 or 40. Maybe he decides to just walk away." *

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