Numbers, you know, are just numbers. We are the ones that assign them meaning. You take a random set of numbers — 5,694, 23,821, 660, 1,499,850, 56, 444,444 9,349, 82 — and they might mean nothing at all.
Then, a couple of those numbers might jump out at you. Maybe you saw 660 and thought: Willie Mays. He hit 660 home runs in his career.
Maybe you saw 56 and thought: Joe DiMaggio. He hit in 56 straight games.
Maybe you saw 82 and thought: Kobe Bryant. He scored 82 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second-most ever scored in an NBA game.
Maybe you saw a different number and — WAIT! Kobe Bryant didn’t score 82 points in that game. He scored 81 (yeah, did that on purpose, you can stop writing that angry tweet/email/comment). The point is that numbers can carry powerful meaning. But they carry the meaning we give them.
All of which brings me to Alex Rodriguez — and why I think it’s better for him to finish with 696 home runs than to finish with 700.
Baseball fans — American sports fans in general, but particularly baseball fans — have long worshiped at the alter of round numbers. We love ‘em. You have your .300 average, 100 RBIs, 30 homers (or 40 or 50 or 60 or, gasp, 70), 20 wins, 200 strikeouts (or 300) and so on. Round numbers are our guideposts.
This has long been true of career numbers, too (3,000 hits, 500 homers, 300 wins). We have watched many athletes linger past their expiration date in pursuit of one of those round numbers. Craig Biggio wasn’t as effective his last two years in the big leagues, but he stuck around for 3,000 hits and it’s probably good that he did — it probably made his journey to the Hall of Fame easier. My friend Dale Murphy tried desperately for two more homers so he could get to 400. And so on.
But let’s get back around to the original point: Numbers are just numbers. Even round numbers don’t mean anything if we decide they don’t. We are the ones who, in the words of Bill James, give numbers the power of language.
And lately, for obvious reasons, the meanings of some of baseball’s round numbers have lost their meaning. For more than a half-century, 500 home runs meant immortality. It meant the Hall of Fame. It was called “a club” or even “an exclusive club” and baseball fans, on bar bets, would name everyone in it.
In recent years, though, 500 home runs has lost its wonder. It has raised PED suspicions. It has motivated people to think nostalgically about the past.
Of course, 600 home runs was an even more exclusive club. Three members — Ruth, Mays, Aaron. That was it: The immortals. Now, it is a mishmash of names that carry varying degrees of curiosity, pride and disgust: Bonds, Sosa, Griffey, Thome and, of course, A-Rod.
And 700 homers, well…
The idea of A-Rod hitting 700 home runs began at least 15 years ago. It was exciting then. He was piling up numbers faster than anyone before him. He had 200 home runs at 25 years old. In those days, it seemed likely that Ken Griffey Jr. would challenge Henry Aaron’s home run record. And then A-Rod would roar past both of them.
And, as we all know, a lot has happened since those days, both in baseball and with Rodriguez. Bonds broke Aaron’s record. A historic rush of people blasted a historic number of homers. And A-Rod’s entire persona turned inside out because of numerous missteps he made, and because of even more harmful choices he made to get around those missteps. Two failed PED tests. A lot of lying. A lost game of chicken with MLB. A year-long suspension. After all that, he was just a shell. He was a shell of himself as a player. But he was also a shell of himself as a baseball figure — the numbers he had put up no longer meant much of anything to anybody. He had 600-plus homers, for instance. Few cared.
But here’s something about Rodriguez, something that even some of his foremost critics have said: He has been a different public person since returning from his suspension. He hasn’t complained about his plight. He hasn’t made excuses. He hasn’t allowed himself to get embroiled in the controversies that, for him, are always ready to blossom.
He has been, dare I say it, something like admirable. Even the way he handled the hacky retirement business with the Yankees — with the team forcing him out for roster spots that will be available in two weeks anyway — has been commendable. “With all the screw-ups and how badly I acted” he said, “the fact that I’m walking out the door and Hal (Steinbrenner, Yankees owner) wants me (as) part of the family, that’s hitting 800 home runs for me.”
That’s a pretty good statement filled with humbleness and regret.
We talk all the time like we are willing to forgive — happy to forgive — if only people would face their issues and at least seem honestly contrite. Well, A-Rod for the last two or so years has done that. I mean, you never know about a person — all we ever see is the public face — but publicly he has seemed interested in being a better person and he has seemed open to sharing his story to help others.
That’s why retiring with 696 home runs instead of 700 is a better look. Yes, 700 home runs still maintains some of its splendor — how can it not? That’s the stratosphere of Ruth and Aaron, but it wouldn’t for A-Rod. People would see his 700 homers and think about PEDs and all that went with it. We don’t know what PEDs REALLY did for A-Rod, but at this point it doesn’t even matter. No one would see 700 homers as authentic. The number would not carry any of real meaning.
But 696 home runs, well, you know what? That might just remind us a little bit of the end, when A-Rod carried himself with some dignity and humility and walked away rather than chase glorious numbers that can never bring him glory.