It's official now. Alex Rodriguez owns 660 career home runs, tying him with Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list. From here, he has only Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds to catch.
Don't feel much like celebrating? Well, you're certainly not alone. A man hitting 660 home runs should be a big deal that has us all saying grand things about the greatness of said man's legacy. But due to the context in which A-Rod's legacy has been written, to do that in this situation would be a total farce.
Rodriguez is tied with Mays in home runs, yes. But now that their two legacies are side by side, there's no ignoring how one of these things is not like the other.
We'll get to that. But first, let's get on with the acknowledgement.
If you missed it, A-Rod's 660th home run was his sixth of 2015, and it came off Junichi Tazawa in the eighth inning of the New York Yankees' contest against the rival Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Friday night. It was a pinch-hit laser beam over the Green Monster, and it looked a little something like this:
If you listen really carefully to that video, you can hear some cheers. Those are coming mainly from the Yankees dugout and from the few pinstripe-clad fans peppered around the stands. Thanks to those two parties, A-Rod's 660th home run is not a totally joyless event.
But for everyone else? Well, the boos tell the story.
We know the Yankees' powers-that-be aren't happy. Bill Madden and Teri Thompson of the New York Daily News recently highlighted how the Yankees want nothing to do with A-Rod's 660th home run, as they have no interest in paying him the $6 million milestone bonus they once agreed to.
According to a source, via Madden and Thompson, their reasoning was simple: “They say the records are tainted, and therefore they’re not milestones that can be marketed.”
Take the word "marketed" and switch in the word "celebrated," and you get an accurate picture of not just how all the Red Sox fans packed into Fenway Park felt about A-Rod's 660th, but how the vast majority of baseball fans feel about it.
And by no means is that an unfair stance to take.
We first learned in 2009 that A-Rod had used performance-enhancing drugs between 2001 and 2003. He did things that almost everyone else was also doing at the time, but fans were outraged anyway. But when A-Rod was linked to PEDs again in the Biogenesis scandal of 2013, their outrage was justified. With baseball's PED protocols well entrenched, A-Rod appeared to break the rules this time.
There's no looking past these events, much less forgiving them. Not even a former manager of A-Rod's could keep himself from using the magic word, as Joe Torre told Fox Sports:
So, a tainted record indeed. And worse, it belongs to a tainted personality.
Bryan Curtis of Grantland can tell you all about how difficult it's been to put labels on A-Rod, but one thing he hasn't been in a long time is likable. He first turned heel when he left the Seattle Mariners in 2000 for the Texas Rangers and their many riches. And ever since, he's spent an inordinate amount of time mired in on-the-field and off-the-field controversies.
In fairness to A-Rod, here's one thing that can be said in his defense: it still is—and indeed has been—fun to simply watch him play ball. His 660 home runs may be tainted, but they're still 660 home runs. They're also attached to a .942 career OPS and 322 career stolen bases. A clueless fan could say, "Man, that guy must have been fun to watch," and you couldn't disagree.
But with legacies, it's not about just how much fun it was to watch a guy. It's also about how much fun it was to root for him. That's the real tragedy of A-Rod's various misadventures. It's because of them that his 660th home run feels more like a footnote than an accomplishment, and it's because of them that his legacy is half of what it might have been.
That point really doesn't require a comparison for further elaboration. But right now, it just so happens that we have A-Rod's legacy in one hand and Mays' in the other.
Between Rodriguez and Mays, there's not much of an argument to be had about who was the superior player. We can use FanGraphs to put their key statistics side-by-side and come up with this:
|Willie Mays vs. Alex Rodriguez|
|Player||G||HR||SB||AVG||OBP||SLUG||Base Running Runs||Fielding Runs||WAR|
The one thing A-Rod has done better than Mays in his career is run the bases, but Mays was no slouch in that department. And as maybe the greatest defensive center fielder ever, Mays more than made up for Rodriguez's small baserunning advantage with his huge fielding advantage.
Offensively, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage peg A-Rod and Mays as roughly equal hitters. When you use either OPS+ or wRC+ to adjust for parks and eras, however, Mays comes out ahead by comfortable margins.
And this is without getting into the notion that A-Rod shouldn't even be tied with Mays on the all-time home run list right now.
Though Mays did need more games to get to 660 home runs than Rodriguez did, he might have hit a lot more under different circumstances. Mays lost home runs to his military service in 1952 and 1953, and he may have lost more to the Polo Grounds' epic dimensions and Candlestick Park's hostile weather patterns.
Had things happened differently, it's entirely possible we're having a completely different conversation right now. Maybe one about A-Rod having a long way to go before catching Ruth before he can even think about turning his attention to Mays.
But of course, there's so much more to Mays' legacy than his numbers.
Maybe more so than any other player, Mays is defined by tales—and, thanks to "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series, at least one video—of how he played. Along the way, he carved out a reputation as the ideal ballplayer. He's still the model five-tool player, and his unceasing enthusiasm for the game might as well be his sixth tool.
As James S. Hirsch put it in Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, Mays was "always better than the box score." The innate charisma of the "Say Hey Kid" has also long since become legendary, so what Hirsch says here rings true:
His legacy, ultimately, will never be about his numbers, his records, or how he helped his team to win. It will be about the pure joy he brought to fans and the loving memories that have been passed to future generations so they might know the magic and beauty of the game.
Sound like the exact opposite of anyone you know?
There is but one sour spot on Mays' legacy: As much as everyone wants to believe he was clean all along, that may not be entirely true.
Mays played during the days when amphetamines were the drug of choice among major leaguers, and Mays himself was once famously linked to a liquid amphetamine called "red juice" in the 1980s. And though he denied any wrongdoing, he didn't deny occasionally seeking chemical help.
Said Mays, according to Hirsch: "I would go to the doctor and say to the doctor, 'Hey, I need something to keep me going. Could you give me some sort of vitamin?' I don't know what they put in there, and I never asked a question about anything."
Whatever it was that Mays took, chances are it's something that's now banned by Major League Baseball. To an extent, he and A-Rod are peas in a pod when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs.
But only to an extent.
You can write off A-Rod's early juicing and Mays' vitamin habit with the same excuse: They were looking for the same edge as everyone else. A-Rod's more recent juicing, however, is the deal-breaker. He didn't really break the rules the first time he used PEDs, but he did the second time around. That's worthy of scorn, now and forever.
Officially, A-Rod and Mays belong in the same sentence. That may not be the case for long with Rodriguez only one home run away from having fourth place on the all-time list to himself, but it's the case for now.
Unofficially, however, is a different story. And though hundreds of words can be (and just were) dedicated to the matter, it's really quite simple in the end.
A-Rod's legacy is that of a star most everyone can't wait to forget. Mays' legacy is that of a star nobody wants to forget.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.
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