TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Rodriguez plants his right foot in the batter’s box, takes a swing, steps in and taps the plate. His name is announced, and fans respond with 7 seconds of applause.
After two years as a scoundrel, he’s once again a star in the minds of many New York Yankees fans.
One year after his return from a drug suspension, A-Rod is approaching the home run marks of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. He hit 33 last year, his most since 2010, and enters this season with 687, just 75 from matching Bonds’ record.
"I know he gets there in three years," Yankees great Reggie Jackson said. "I think it would be shocking if he got there in two."
A-Rod says he plans to retire after the 2017 season. But he also says he could change his mind. Surpassing Bonds could be too alluring.
Last spring, Rodriguez’s name was absent from items in the Yankees’ gift shops as the team prepared to fight over a $6 million marketing payment triggered by his 660th home run — matching Willie Mays’ total. This March, blue Rodriguez batting practice jerseys that cost $129.95 sold out at Steinbrenner Field, and team doesn’t appear to anticipate a dispute if A-Rod reaches the next payment level for matching Ruth at 714.
Rodriguez turns 41 this July and in the post-steroids era already is at an age where feet and bats slow, where balls that once soared over walls are caught on the warning track. His hairline has started to recede and he keeps his locks trimmed, limiting hints of grey to a minimum.
As much as he tries to concentrate on the next game, the next at-bat and the next pitch, the big picture infiltrates his thoughts, like water starting to trickle through cracks in a dam.
"There are things you just can’t help to think about. Obviously, they’re there. They’re big numbers," he said. "But the goal for me this year is exactly what it was last year: come out, work really hard, be in good shape, better be productive in the middle of the lineup and try to help us win games. And whatever the numbers add up to, they add up to."
History suggests he might fall short of Bonds’ 762.
Bonds holds the record for most home runs after turning 40 with 79 — Rodriguez already has 10 since the big birthday last July 27. The mark for most in a season who already was 40 on opening day is 29, shared by Ted Williams and Raul Ibanez.
"Of course, I’m sure it’s in his head," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You hope that it doesn’t weigh heavily, and that he’s able just to go out and relax and play."
Rest and relaxation.
Shifted from third base to designated hitter, Rodriguez spent just 11 innings in the field last season. He played in 151 games, his highest total since 2007. Before the suspension, he had gone on the disabled list six times in six years for a string of ailments that included operations on both hips, one knee surgery, a strained calf and a broken hand.
Still, Rodriguez tailed off in the last two months of the season, like a leaf shriveling in the summer heat and falling to ground at the first hint of autumn cool. After homering off the Texas Rangers’ Matt Harrison for his sixth birthday homer, he ended his first night as a 40-year-old with a .276 batting average, 24 homers and 59 RBIs. A-Rod hit .208 with nine homers and 27 RBIs the rest of the season.
"I think it’s easier this year, just because we both kind of know the rigours of his job and what he needs," Girardi said. "When he gets out of his legs, you know it’s maybe a time to give him one day off or two days off."
Rodriguez got to heal while sitting out the 2014 season, an enforced absence inflicted by then-Commissioner Bud Selig for violations of baseball’s drug agreement and labour contract. When A-Rod returned last spring training, he went out of his way to act humbly and speak contritely, offering milquetoast responses that sounded as if refined in focus groups to remove any trace of ego or controversy.
He became an elder statesman on a middling Yankees team that limped into the playoffs and was eliminated by Houston in the AL wild-card game. Young players seeking advice gravitated to him in the clubhouse, inquiring in both English and Spanish.
"He’s been talking to everybody," Yankees teammate Carlos Beltran said. "The two years that I’ve had a chance to play with him, he’s been great."
Rodriguez was affable as a guest analyst on Fox during last year’s playoffs. But whether on television or not, A-Rod won’t say whether he thinks Aaron’s 755 or Bonds’ 762 are within reach. When he responds to questions, Rodriguez delays before starting his reply, as if to filter out many of his thoughts.
"I don’t allow myself to think that far ahead," he said. "Literally, when you’re 40, you’re day to day, so you can’t get too excited."