COMMENTARY | If an admitted user of performance-enhancing drugs sets any home run record, it deserves an asterisk. When that record is for career grand slams, the category itself should get an asterisk as well.
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez took the field September 20 in the midst of a slump, with just one measly hit in his previous seven games. When he came to bat in the seventh inning with the bases juiced, he was already 0-for-3. Then A-Rod deposited his 24th career grand slam into the right field seats, breaking a 1-1 tie with the San Francisco Giants and a 23-23 tie with Yankees legend Lou Gehrig for most grand slams in baseball history. That clutch clout blew the lid off Yankee Stadium and preserved New York's glimmering hope for a wild-card spot.
Beating the Giants mattered vastly more than besting Gehrig's mark, but any time you can pass the "Iron Horse" in a batting category is special. In 2009, Derek Jeter surpassed Gehrig for most hits in franchise history. The feat was celebrated and the moment seemed a fitting bridge between generations in the Yankees' rich history.
Rodriguez's new record is vastly different, however. He does not seem a suitable candidate to surpass Gehrig, who left a legacy of grace and humility. A-Rod's accomplishment should indeed be celebrated, but it is soured by two distinct factors: A-Rod himself and the grand slam as a career statistic.
A-Rod, A-Fraud, A-Roid, et al.
First and most obviously, Rodriguez came to the plate while appealing the longest suspension for PEDs in MLB history. Instead of sitting out for 211 games, he hit a crucial game-winning and record-breaking grand slam. You can gnash your teeth and rend your garments over it if you choose, but that is the process negotiated by the players in the collective bargaining agreement. Suspended players frequently use the appeals process, and Rodriguez is no different.
Except that A-Rod is always different, because of his $275 million contract, because a billion people watched Cameron Diaz feed him popcorn at Super Bowl XLV, and because he avowed in 2009 that PED use was in his past. That seems to have been at very least inaccurate, so there is no warm and fuzzy feeling to Rodriguez's achievement beyond a key win for the Yankees.
Even the grand slam as a statistical category does not carry much weight, as it is merely a subspecies of the home run. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and, of course, A-Rod have tainted the sacrosanct list of home run kings in the eyes of many. Naturally, Rodriguez passing Gehrig in grand slam home runs comes with a qualifier as well, namely that Alex had some extra help.
Lucky Ducks on the Pond
Hitting a grand slam requires some luck, as the hitters in front have to be good enough to load the bases but not so good they drive in multiple runs. Fretting over the all-time leader seems an odd fetish, only slightly more sensible than worrying about who hit the most three-run home runs ever.
The most prolific hitters of the four-run homer are mainly legends of the game, but a few other players snuck onto the leaderboard. Imposing slugger and terrible outfielder Dave Kingman ranks 10th with 16 grand salamis, tied with Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Next on the list is Carlos Lee with 17, tied with Boston Red Sox legends Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx. Willie McCovey remains the National League record-holder with 18, but he is somehow tied with Robin Ventura, though Ventura is somewhat of an outlier since the final two home runs of his career were both grand slams. Eddie Murray, Manny Ramirez, Gehrig and Rodriguez complete the top four.
The presence of Kingman, Lee and Ventura on the list is not entirely surprising, as each player had multiple years of prowess with the long ball. However, it goes some way toward explaining how unusual the statistic is when taken in isolation. Don Mattingly hit six grand slams in 1987 and zero in his other 13 seasons. Willie Mays hit 660 home runs but only eight grand slams. Sometimes, a bases-clearing double with ducks on the pond is all you need, although no one cares who hit the most bases-clearing doubles ever. Perhaps grand slams as a career stats deserve a downgrade.
Rodriguez's other stats with the bases loaded are downright nasty: .346 average with 271 RBIs in 237 ABs. Ultimately, he has complied gaudy numbers over his considerable career, ranking in the top 10 for runs, RBIs and total bases. All those numbers are tainted, but we can just slap asterisks all over them and enjoy the ride.
A-Rod's 24th grand slam was also his 654th home run, leaving him on the verge of passing Mays for fourth all time as his suspension appeal looms. Within the game, A-Rod delivered a clutch home run that kept his team's playoff hopes alive. In the scope of history, he set a record with an asterisk in a category with an asterisk.
Sean Hojnacki is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. His writing has also appeared on The Classical, Salon.com and, more briefly, on Twitter. He lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife and a cat named after Melky Cabrera.
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- Alex Rodriguez
- Lou Gehrig
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