MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

A-Rod reality is flaw vs. awe

Neither star's accomplishments should be diminished as Yankees slugger clubs No. 661

A-Rod reality is flaw vs. awe

Willie Mays would randomly pick up a bat he'd used a half-century earlier and roll it around in his hands. Almost instantly, he was young again.

He knows this bat. He knows the texture of its wood, the bat's weight and shape. A couple of years ago when a friend handed him one with a tiny stamp commemorating the 1963 All-Star Game, Mays knew immediately.

"This isn't it," he said.

Mays was handed another.

Nope.

And then another.

"This one," he said.

Mays knew before he'd looked at the notation on the barrel. He can't tell you how he knows. He just does.

To a generation or two of baseball fans, Mays is the greatest player of them all. He hit 660 home runs, but he was also a superior defensive player and baserunner. What Dusty Baker once said of Hank Aaron applies to Mays.

"The worst thing Hank ever did was hit all those home runs," Baker said, "because they overshadowed the fact that he did everything better than anyone else."

That's also true of Mays. His name is dotted around the leaderboard in everything from total bases (third) to hits (12th) to RBIs (11th). Mays was a presence, a star. He made underhand catches. His hat flew off when he rounded the bases. Mays' swing was a thing of beauty, a blend of power and precision. If you saw him play, you remembered.

So to the people who watched Willie Mays play or have seen film of him or studied his numbers, it does not matter much who passes him on the all-time home run list. He's Willie Mays, and he will forever occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of fans. Even now, there's a buzz when he walks into a ballpark.

Fans celebrate Mays' birthday

There's a buzz when Alex Rodriguez walks into a ballpark, too. Maybe the buzz has a different meaning than it did a decade ago, but it's still there. And so a moment we knew was coming happened in Thursday night's game between the Yankees and Orioles, when Rodriguez hit the 661st home run of his career to pass Mays and stand alone in fourth place on the all-time list.

Must C: A-Rod hits No. 661

Rodriguez did it the way he'd done it so many times before. He strode into a Chris Tillman changeup in the third inning and sent it sailing over the center-field wall at Yankee Stadium. With that swing, Rodriguez trails only Barry Bonds (762), Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) on the all-time list. Yep, he's just 53 home runs behind the Bambino. If this bothers you, it shouldn't.

When Bonds passed him, Aaron said he felt blessed to have the record as long as he did. He congratulated Bonds and hoped kids would be inspired to work hard and make history themselves.

Likewise, Mays was one of the first to congratulate A-Rod after No. 660 last week. He knew this other day was coming, too.

Must C: A-Rod's 660th home run

Here's the point.

Plenty of kids in Seattle and Texas and New York have gotten the same kind of thrill out of watching Rodriguez play as earlier generations did while watching Mays, Aaron and Ruth.

Players come and go, and so do historical milestones. What will never change are our memories of those players and how we feel about them.

A-Rod's accomplishments may have been chemically enhanced by performance-enhancing drugs, and one of the sad parts of his story is guessing what kind of career he would have had if he'd decided to play by the rules.

That aside, baseball's most cherished records are personal to many of us. They tie us to friends or family or moments in our lives. Mays is special in the Bay Area because he's a civic treasure, because he will forever be the face of the Giants (Bonds is revered in San Francisco, too, it should be noted). In Baltimore, it's that way with Cal Ripken and Brooks Robinson and others. In St. Louis, it's Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, etc.

Whatever Rodriguez did or didn't do in terms of performance-enhancing drugs, he was also blessed with amazing skills and a relentless determination to be great. Milestones can be complicated things since no two generations of players are alike. Players evolve as the game evolves.

At 40, Rodriguez is nearing the end. He'd played poorly for stretches of the 2012 and '13 seasons, and these milestone home runs come at a time when he has cooled off from a nice start and is struggling mightily.

Rodriguez also knows he can't erase whatever happened in the past, and he is doing the best he can to write a better ending to his career. Fans in Seattle who watched him take the field as an 18-year-old wunderkind in 1994 have the same kind of memories that the people who watched Mays or Mickey Mantle have for the first time.

Rodriguez's ultimate legacy is complicated and surely won't be sorted out for years. Hundreds of teammates were awed by his talent. For years, opponents measured themselves against him.

Rodriguez will leave a game that's in far better shape than it was when he made his debut. He'll ultimately be remembered for more than PEDs. Focusing solely on his missteps is a mistake.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.