Yankee Alex Rodriguez Hits His 600th Home Run Wednesday, New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player ever to hit 600 home runs. He is only the seventh player in the history of Major League Baseball to reach this milestone. But, since Rodriguez confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, critics wonder if this milestone even matters to fans.

Yankee Alex Rodriguez Hits His 600th Home Run

Yankee Alex Rodriguez Hits His 600th Home Run

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Wednesday, New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player ever to hit 600 home runs. He is only the seventh player in the history of Major League Baseball to reach this milestone. But, since Rodriguez confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, critics wonder if this milestone even matters to fans.

Guest

Bill Rhoden, columnist, New York Times

TONY COX, host:

Well, the chase is over for Alex Rodriguez. He has finally hit home run number 600. The New York Yankees' third baseman blasted a pitch over the center field wall in the first inning of today's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. After 12 games without hitting a long ball, many fans were baffled as to why it took so long. A-Rod becomes the seventh player to join the 600 home run club, joining the likes of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. And yet, after his admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs, baseball fans and sportswriters alike wonder whether this milestone even matters.

If you are a baseball fan, do you care about A-Rod's 600th home run? Do you still care about home run records at all? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from member station WDET in Detroit is Bill Rhoden. He is a columnist for The New York Times. Bill, nice to talk to you.

Mr. WILLIAM C. RHODEN (Sports Columnist, The New York Times): The great Tony Cox. How are you doing, man? Wonderful to talk to you.

COX: It's wonderful to be with you. And we've done a number of NPR shows together, but we've never had a show where people get to call in and talk. So we're going to do that today. What was your reaction when you saw that he finally hit - that A-Rod finally hit number 600, Bill?

Mr. RHODEN: About time. That's - I was about to jump off the cliff, too. I said, come on, man. Just hit the home run. It was, you know -particularly in New York, you know, where everything is just made bigger than it is. And with every inning that he didn't get a hit, it was just getting worse and worse and worse. So - and you knew it was just a matter of time. So, you know, he's - I'm just glad that it's over with, that part of the drama is over with, and now we can, you know, we can move on.

COX: There has not been - I mean, well, let me put it this way, Bill Rhoden. There's been a great deal of conversation about A-Rod and number 600, but there hasn't been a great deal, it seems to me - tell me if I'm wrong - of interest in whether he hit it or not.

Mr. RHODEN: He - well, I think you're right halfway in that - remember -and we talked about it a couple of years ago, that A-Rod was going to be the shining prince, the antidote to Barry Bonds. And then, of course, we discovered that there was no Santa Claus, and that A-Rod was just like everybody else, and he was juicing up to, you know, to perform.

The reality is that, I think at one level, this is sort of the last gasp of the steroid era, but they also think, Tony, I mean, A-Rod is a great player, just like Barry Bonds is a great player, Willie Mays was a great player. These guys are great players. And whether you like it or not, he's got the record. He's the youngest major leaguer to achieve this milestone. It's a great record. It's going to stick. It's in the record book, no asterisks, and that's just the way it is. And if he keeps healthy and keeps on his pace, in three years, four years, you know, we're going to actually talk about him as the new home run person. So, you know, you could wring your hands about it, but this is it. It's in the record book, and just kind of get over it and move on.

COX: How old is he? Do you - how old is he?

Mr. RHODEN: I think he's - what is A-Rod, like, 31? Something like 31, 32.

COX: All right, so he has time. How far could he go in terms of how many home runs he could hit, presuming that, you know, he's, you know, off the juice now and he's going to be the real athlete that we thought he was before his admission?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, I think that, actually, I think he may be closer like 34, 35. But I think, given his work habits, I think he lives a relatively healthy lifestyle, I think he's got a tremendous shot, and particularly if he continues to play with the Yankees, because they're always going to surround him with a great team. So, all things being equal, without any sort of debilitating injuries, I think he's going to be right there. He's going to be right there looking at Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds.

COX: We're going to take a call in a minute, but I wonder, because you knew George Steinbrenner, the late owner of the Yankees, what would he have said today to and about A-Rod hitting homerun number 600. He probably would have been angry that he didn't do it at the Yankee Stadium. But besides that, what might he have said?

Mr. RHODEN: No. I think he'd be bursting with pride because this is a reflection on him. He's the one who authorized, signed the big check to bring A-Rod to New York. In fact, you could probably argue that A-Rod was sort of Steinbrenner's last great signature signing. So, you know, you don't have to know Steinbrenner well to know that he would be pleased as Punch at this moment.

COX: All right. Let's take a call. Let's go to Michael(ph) from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Michael, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

COX: Do you have a comment or question? Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Yeah. Thanks for letting me speak. I actually feel like baseball in order to clean up its image has a price to pay, and that price may be the big stars who cheated. And if A-Rod, you know, hits 1,000 more homeruns, I think they are illegitimate in my mind.

And I'm a huge baseball fan. I think baseball's crowning moment was when Cal Ripken broke the longevity record in the late '90s. And since then, you know, it's been tarnished by the steroid era. And the only way to, you know, basically reclaim some legitimacy is to make tough decisions about the record books and clean them up. Thanks.

Mr. RHODEN: How do you know Cal Ripken wasn't juicing?

COX: He's gone, and I don't know if we know the answer to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That raises the question, though, Bill Rhoden, with me. And let me before we go further, suggest to people who may want to call in and offer a comment, this is TALK OF THE NATION. We're talking about A-Rod and baseball and homerun number 600, and whether you care, don't care, whether it should be an asterisk assigned to it or not. The phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

Are we seeing, Bill Rhoden, the handling of this being different than, obviously, Barry Bonds or some of the others who have hit homerun milestones in their careers, not going all the way back to Hank Aaron, of course.

Mr. RHODEN: That's a great observation, Tony, because I think there's a the approach is much more sober if you've noticed. You know, there's not sort of telegrams and all of that. I think that there's a much more restrained atmosphere because A - because sort of what A-Rod is going through and the admissions and all of that, and also just the fact that you just don't know. I think there was there's something called the steroid era, you know, Bud Selig hates to use that term, but it existed.

A lot of players were using - and by the way, you know, the caller made this thing about Cal Ripken and all of that. There are a lot of pitchers who are using, too, so I think we all have to get off this holier than thou, and driven as pure as the driven snow, and accept these accomplishments for what they are. There are a lot of homeruns being hit by guys like A-Rod, and they were hit by - off of a lot of pitcher who are juicing. So let's just get over it.

COX: Here are some emails I like to share with you. Here's one from Mason(ph). It's of course, it matters. Steroids do not improve a batter's eyes, the most influential factor in making solid contact with the ball. They made him hit it further but not more often. And congratulations, this person says, to A-Rod.

Here's another one. This one comes from Justin(ph) in Minnesota. He says, I'm really happy to see that A-Rod is racking up homers at a record rate. It is a mark on baseball to have the homerun record held by a cheater like Barry Bonds. At least A-Rod has admitted his mistakes. If he gets the overall homerun record, at least the record will be correct, and we won't have to hear about Bonds and his tainted numbers anymore.

That speaks to what you and I were just now talking about. It's because, in this viewer's mind or this listener's mind, I should say - since A-Rod owned up, fessed up to his, that it's okay. And since Barry Bonds has not, then it's not okay.

Mr. RHODEN: That's just bizarre and I think is nonsense. To my mind, I mean, Barry Bonds is still the homerun king. He's not been proven guilty. The government's posse has been on his case for years. And a lot of our tax I mean, our money, they have not found anything - likely, they probably will not. And Barry Bonds was a great hitter, the greatest hitter of all time.

And, again - you know, again, Tony, it does not matter whether, you know, he - I mean, Ty Cobb was renowned racist, you know? He's in the Hall of Fame whether you and he was a base stealer, whether you like it or whether I like it or not. That's just the way it is, you know? And I'm glad people like, you know, A-Rod, better than they like Barry Bonds, but the reality is that Barry Bonds is the homerun king, and that's just...

COX: The way that it is.

Mr. RHODEN: That's the way it is.

COX: Here's a die-hard Yankee fan, Carolyn(ph), from Raleigh, North Carolina, saying that I am a die-hard Yankee fan. I do care about homerun records. However, because of A-Rod's admission of juicing, I think that this is meaningless.

I've got a call coming up in just a second. Do you think, Bill Rhoden, that this will keep A-Rod out of the Hall of Fame or...

Mr. RHODEN: Oh, no. I think, no.

COX: ...he will get in?

Mr. RHODEN: No, no. No, he's I mean, A-Rod is what they call a first ballot Hall of Famer. I mean, this guy was one of the best second basemen, shortstops of all time. Now, he switched to third. He's one of the greatest third basemen of all time. He is one of the greatest hitters of all time. No, he's in the Hall of Fame, period.

COX: Did you say fault first? Does that how you it was described going in? A vote first, may be the first ballot...

Mr. RHODEN: It was the first ballot...

COX: Okay.

Mr. RHODEN: ...the first-ballot Hall of Famer.

COX: Does something have to go in I have not been to the Hall of Fame, so I can't say how they have been set up. But does a line have to go in underneath his picture that says, he was great, you know, and he was a multiple position player, but yet he was a part of this juiced period in baseball.

Mr. RHODEN: If - yeah. Let's go back to the Hall of Fame, saying, you know, this person was great, but he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This person was great, but he didn't play against, you know, black players. I mean, yeah, if we're going to start doing - fooling around with that kind of nonsense, let's go back and put asterisks and explanations under every single person there. That's ridiculous. And it's foolish for people to want to play around with history as they see it, you know what I'm saying? If we're going to do that stuff, Tony, let's do it to everybody.

COX: That's an interesting point that you make. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

All right, let's take another call. This is Donald(ph) from Boerne, Texas. Donald, hello, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DONALD (Caller): Good afternoon. Great topic.

COX: Good afternoon.

DONALD: Mr. Rhoden, I sure love the way you write. Could you please comment on the fact that the Texas Rangers are now going through a bankruptcy court proceeding to get rid of the owner that brought A-Rod to Texas in a, I guess, Steinbrenner-like manner and yet now that the team, having rid itself of that ownership, is much more successful, more admirable? And also, A-Rod actually committed his steroid violations in Texas. And I'll hang up, thank you.

COX: All right. Thank you, Donald, for that call. It's a little bit off, but it is connected. Can you answer that?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, it's a very - it's a great observation in that - I just think it's karma...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: ...you know? It's sort of fate sort of taking care of the culprits because you're right, even going back to the Bush ownership of the Rangers, that was almost ground zero of a lot of - that and Oakland - ground zero of a lot of steroid use, undetected steroid use.

So in some ways, you might say this is chickens coming home to roost.

COX: Hmm. We've heard that comment before.

Mr. RHODEN: All right. As Malcolm said.

COX: Yes, you did. Let's take another...

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Let's take another phone call. This is Robert(ph) from Lincoln, Massachusetts. Robert, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Thank you. Long-time caller - long-time listener, first-time caller. And thank you, Mr. Rhoden, for great columns through the years. I just really have two quick points and then I'll take the answer off the air. Number one, I think Alex Rodriguez is actually underrated as a baseball player. As funny as that might sound, he's the first infielder to make this list. And as a former Gold Glove winner at shortstop, I think that's pretty significant, to be, you know, that type of power hitter coming from the infield.

But number two, I'd like to understand why we're not hearing more about the use of amphetamines, especially by guys like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays...

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah.

ROBERT: ...who we're seeing the performance of players on the road suffering without the use of amphetamines. And that actually might be the greatest testing that the MLB is doing today rather than the performance-enhancing drugs that gets much more attention than the amphetamines issue. But thank you very much.

COX: Thanks, Robert.

Mr. RHODEN: Tony, you know, that's such an outstanding point. Wow, what smart callers we have.

COX: Yeah, tell us.

Mr. RHODEN: That's just - you know, because you hear guys like Willy and Hank and all those guys get on the high horse, and in our day - listen, in that day, that - he's exactly right - it's amphetamines. You know, everybody had to find a way to get through the day, and it was amphetamines.

And so in every generation, you have people finding an edge, finding a competitive edge. That's why this talk, all of the sudden, of rewriting, putting asterisks and that kind of stuff is just ridiculous. There's an evolution to this stuff. And you're right, Bud Selig doesn't bring up that stuff about the amphetamines of that era because a lot of his friends playec in that era, you know, Hank Aaron and that group. You know, and everybody - not everybody, but so many players in that generation used the greenies and the amphetamines. So that was really a great point.

And I think the other great point that the caller make was about what Rodriguez has accomplished. I mean, this guy was a great shortstop. And the idea that a shortstop, an infielder, which historically is sort of like the anemic hitting position, the idea that a shortstop would be closing in on the homerun record and hitting 600 at an early age is really a phenomenal achievement. So to that extent, I agree that A-Rod, as superstars go, has probably not been given enough credit as being transformational.

COX: Let me ask you to end the conversation with this question, Bill Rhoden, because I know that you follow sports, and baseball in particular, very closely. If you had a son and your son was watching A-Rod today, what would you say to him about A-Rod's accomplishment? How would you characterize it?

Mr. RHODEN: I'd just tell him, man, this is a great ballplayer, you know? He's a great ballplayer, and I probably would go over some of the stuff he said as he admitted juicing. And one of the things A-Rod said is that, you know, he was insecure. He realized he did not have to juice. He really didn't have to juice.

And I think that's one of the things that I think we should emphasize to our children about a lot of stuff, not just cheating in sports but cheating in general, whether it's scholastically or anything. Once you -when you have self-confidence, an inner confidence, no, but you don't have to take shortcuts, you know? You don't have to cheat. But I think that all this ties in to self-esteem, knowing who you are and self-confidence, and that's what A-Rod said. He said, I was insecure, but now I realized I didn't have to do that stuff. I'd be great without it.

COX: People are going to forgive him, aren't they?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, particularly in New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Yes, you know you Yankees...

Mr. RHODEN: Win baby.

COX: We know how you Yankee fans are. Thanks very much, Bill, for dropping by. Good conversation. And we got it on the day that A-Rod hit homerun number 600.

Mr. RHODEN: Thanks so much.

COX: Bill Rhoden is a columnist for The New York Times, joining us from member station WDET in Detroit, heading back to New York City. Travel safely, my friend.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

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