The dissection of Alex Rodriguez's(notes) legacy starts in earnest here, at home run No. 600, which he belted Wednesday off Shaun Marcum(notes) of the Toronto Blue Jays after a drought of 12 games and 46 at-bats, and three years to the day after he hit No. 500.
Six hundred, before steroids infiltrated the game, meant the company of baseball's Rushmore: Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays. Now, it might get you some tokens at Chuck E. Cheese.
No matter how remarkable an accomplishment 600 is – recognizing the spin on a five-ounce projectile hurled from 60 feet away at up to 100 mph and using a 2 5/8-inch-thick stick to hit it well over 300 feet hundreds upon hundreds of times – the number itself is in a morass. Steroids stripped its relevance and turned what should've been a sport-wide celebration into another day at the ballpark.
And for the immediate future, as he hopscotches past others en route to the all-time record, A-Rod's mark on baseball will be one of confusion. Rodriguez hit 600, yes, but he did so having admitted using steroids.
[Graphic: Charting A-Rod's rise to the 600-club]
Which means what exactly? Was he a cheat? A fraud? A phony? Was he just trying to keep pace with the rest of the game? Taking advantage of a loophole in baseball's rules? Aching for greatness like everyone does?
Do we rejoice or lament?
Applaud or boo?
Acknowledge or dismiss?
Such questions will find answers somewhere between here and 762, the home run record held by the face of the steroid era, Barry Bonds. Over that time, the context of Rodriguez's career, and his place in the annals of steroid users, will come into greater focus. Nobody will blink when he hits No. 610 to pass Sammy Sosa. The reaction when he usurps Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) with No. 631 will be telling – whether there is anger or joy or numbness that purportedly the greatest clean ballplayer of his generation got surpassed by the one who should have been.
That colors every Rodriguez discussion, the very fact that a player of such sublime talent ate baseball's forbidden fruit. Why he felt it necessary plumbs deep into the psyche of someone whose decision-making skills don't quite stack up to his baseball ability. Then again, little does. A-Rod, baseball player, was a deity long before he went to the needle.
Which is why nobody forgets A-Rod's use, like they do Andy Pettitte's(notes) dabbling with HGH or dozens of other players' imbibing: Greatness needs no supplementation, particularly a morally and ethically hazy sort such as steroids. It's only the best players whose performance-enhancing drug use inflames the anti-steroid bloc: Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and Manny Ramirez(notes), all Hall of Famers before the revelation of their use, all suspect now because of it.
Bonds was a five-tool machine, Clemens an all-time-great pitcher, McGwire a home run-mashing monster, Ramirez the most natural right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio. That wasn't enough. And none was as gifted as Rodriguez, for whom inborn virtuosity never filled his epochal desires.
Rodriguez is not the coward of Bonds and Clemens and McGwire and Ramirez, whose vehement denial of steroid use in the face of overwhelming evidence is laughable. Bonds and Clemens are in the midst of legal proceedings stemming from their defiance; McGwire's admission came a decade too late for it to resonate; and Ramirez's clown-prince act when busted only reinforced that such a beautiful swing deserves a better host. When Sports Illustrated busted Rodriguez, he copped to it. However inelegant and full of half-truths, it was still an admission.
The day of his press conference, Rodriguez got flayed. His reputation was in tatters. A-Fraud was a legitimate nickname. Still, more than two years later now, he delivered a far more honest assessment of himself and his drug use than any star before or since.
Whether time softens anti-steroid zealots' stance on users' places in history will determine how the rest of A-Rod's career is viewed. He's going to be around for another seven years, the Yankees' foolishly promising him at least $20 million a year through 2017. Already beset by injuries at 34, Rodriguez at that point might need a cane to reach the dugout.
He'll still be good for a few home runs, though, because even with the steroids out of his system, Rodriguez owns that pure power stroke, the one he introduced to the world at 20, the one that garnered him three MVP awards and five home run titles. How many homers were hit under fishy pretenses will always be up for debate. The reality is, they count, and because he's the seventh player to reach 600, his pursuit of bigger numbers will allow us to appreciate the legacies of Mays, Ruth and Aaron and to spit on that of Bonds.
All the while, we'll contemplate Rodriguez's place among them. All steroid users are not the same. And yet right now, early on in this chase, it's impossible to ignore Rodriguez's guilt as a factor in his being here. He was supposed to be the solution to the Bonds problem. After this significant step to 763, he's got a long way to go.