NEW YORK -- One big swing had altered the record books on Thursday, as Alex Rodriguez pushed ahead of Willie Mays on baseball's all-time home run list, and now the slugger found himself bounding up the dugout steps for what he recently thought would be an even more improbable achievement: a Yankee Stadium curtain call.
Rodriguez connected for the 661st home run of his career, a third-inning solo blast to center field off the Orioles' Chris Tillman in a 4-3 Yankees victory. Rodriguez pumped his fist as he rounded first base and was warmly received in the dugout by his teammates, as well as by the cheering crowd of 39,816.
"All of this is pretty crazy," Rodriguez said. "A year ago today, I never thought that I would ever get a curtain call or be hitting in the middle of the lineup for the New York Yankees, helping our team win."
Popping out for a brief moment, Rodriguez acknowledged the roars with a two-handed salute, then bowed his head and returned to the dugout so Mark Teixeira could begin his at-bat. It was Rodriguez's seventh homer since returning from a suspension that cost him the entire 2014 season.
"It's been a long time since I've had a curtain call," Rodriguez said. "I didn't know what to expect from the fans. I can tell you this, I wish I could go out -- and I can't -- and thank every fan personally for not only the way they treated me tonight, but the way they've treated me all season. It's certainly fueling the way I'm playing."
Rodriguez nearly cleared the right-field wall in the first inning for what would have been a three-run homer, but Delmon Young brought back the high drive with a leaping grab. Replays showed that the ball would have hit the top of the wall, possibly bouncing over for a homer, but Rodriguez instead settled for a sacrifice fly.
"I don't like it," Tillman said. "Any time you give up a home run, I don't like it. He's one of the all-time greats. You've got to respect it. Any time you make a mistake to that guy, he's going to make you pay. He pretty much did twice."
As an organization, the Yankees' celebration was muted, though they acknowledged the moment. The team contends that Rodriguez's contract provides them with "the right, not the obligation" to pay a $6 million bonus for tying Mays, and they contend that the marketing value of Rodriguez's home run chase was ruined by his transgressions.
They did note his passing of the Hall of Famer with a brief message on the center-field video board: "661 Home Runs. Alex Rodriguez just surpassed Willie Mays for sole possession of 4th place on baseball's all-time home runs list."
"Nobody will ever pass Willie Mays," Rodriguez said. "I've talked about him being my father's favorite player. There's only one Willie Mays; not only what he did on the field, but what he meant off the field. He's a legend. He's also a role model for all of us."
Babe Ruth (714) is third on the all-time list, with Henry Aaron (755) second and Barry Bonds (762) the leader. Rodriguez is also just 38 hits shy of 3,000, a milestone that could be reached this season.
Rodriguez said that he didn't notice the on-screen message, but he said that the in-stadium reaction was "incredible" and "humbling." Rodriguez has adopted a tone of modesty in his interviews, and his hot start seems to have scored him some popularity points.
"There's been other guys that have [gone] through suspensions and their troubles and have done things that, at times, have turned the fans off," manager Joe Girardi said. "When you're productive, you re-earn their respect and they pull for you."
"It's obviously a big deal and I know there's a lot of questions surrounding everything, but still -- 660 home runs, that's a lot," Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said. "I see how hard Alex works every day and how much he loves to win, and how much he loves to compete. I'm really happy for him."
As tracked by Statcast™, Rodriguez's homer had an exit velocity of 108 mph and traveled 441 feet, with a launch angle of 23 degrees. The Yankees have been pleasantly surprised by the 39-year-old's contributions, after months of saying that they did not know what they could reasonably expect.
"He's meant a lot," Girardi said. "He's done a really good job in the three-hole, hitting, getting on base, driving in runners, hitting home runs for us, scoring runs. It's what you want. The two guys at the top have done a great job of setting the table for the guys behind them, but Alex has been productive."
The ball landed in a loading-dock area, where it was retrieved by a security guard. Rodriguez swapped an autographed bat for the memento and said that he looked forward to meeting the employee.
"It's been quite a journey here the last few years," Rodriguez said. "I promised myself that I would come out and enjoy every moment. The way the fans have allowed me to come back and play baseball, the way I repay them is by working hard, playing hard and trying to help our team win."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.