It was as if Alex Rodriguez climbed onto baseball’s home run Mount Rushmore reluctantly Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, as if he hoped nobody would notice.
He had hit his 661st career homer to put him alone in fourth place all time, Yankees fans gave him a slightly muted but sincere ovation — the sound of forgiveness, perhaps — and A-Rod had to be told by manager Joe Girardi to emerge from the dugout for a curtain call.
Afterward he said this about that historic moment:
“I was a little embarrassed. It was a little awkward.”
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We are left to wonder if Rodriguez meant embarrassed by the attention or by the cheating that led him to the milestone. In either case he had perfectly described one of the biggest ways the Steroids Era has hurt baseball — by pillaging its history, by turning what should be landmark celebrations into occasions embarrassing, and awkward.
A moment like Rodriguez passing Mays should have been a hallmark for our most historic game, an occasion embraced by baseball. Heck, it might even have warranted a congratulatory phone call from President Obama, who knows? Instead, the moment is diminished, and dirtied by controversy.
Baseball’s home run mountaintop is bookended by scandal now, with tainted No. 1 Barry Bonds and A-Rod on either side of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. Willie Mays, now in fifth place, happened to turn 84 the day before Rodriguez passed him.
How to react?
Do you congratulate a man on his career accomplishment knowing he would become the face of performance-enhancing drugs and the Biogenesis scandal? Do you pretend he had not been suspended the entire 2014 season for PEDs? Do you ignore the certainty he would have a lot fewer homers without the artificial, rules-breaking help?
Do you high five the runner who crossed the finish line after yo saw him take a shortcut in order to win?
Clearly even the Yankees have distanced themselves from Rodriguez and his milestone — refusing to pay him his $6 million bonus for reaching home run No. 661. Take away the PED cloud and T-shirts and other memorabilia commemorating 661 would have been on-sale at Yankee Stadium before the game even ended Thursday. Now, no such merchandise was available.
Imagine if A-Rod had surpassed Mays in any other stadium? Would the cheering have even been heard above the booing? Or have fans begun to show more forgiveness than Hall of Fame voters?
Major League Baseball is unlikely to commemorate something it wished had never happened, just as the Yankees distance themselves from a moment that begs an asterisk.
The awkwardness extends down to Miami, where A-Rod was raised and went to school, and where his name attached to the University of Miami’s ballpark, because of donations, is a matter of controversy. I am not sure we have collectively abandoned A-Rod or defrocked his Favorite Son status. But neither do I see local mayors offering the proclamations and keys to the city that might otherwise be there.
That Mays happens to be the player passed by hits home a little bit with me, because the “Say Hey Kid” was my first sports hero, somebody who sparked my imagination as a boy in the mid-‘60s.
Mays has been relegated twice now by the Steroids Era, and for how that feels I would defer again to the perfect, spot-on words of Rodriguez himself: