MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Records fall, but legends have staying power

Records fall, but legends have staying power

If this wasn't said directly, it was suggested: When Alex Rodriguez slipped past Lou Gehrig on Wednesday night on the all-time career RBI list, he pushed another baseball legend into the shadows.

Or did he?

Well, he didn't, and I'm not saying this in relation to Rodriguez's issues. I'm talking about how baseball legends never lose their magic no matter what the numbers say. You know, like A-Rod suddenly owning more RBIs overall than one of the game's eternal gods.

Ever hear of Ty Cobb? Folks still acknowledge his greatness, even though Pete Rose shot past The Georgia Peach on Sept. 11, 1985, to become baseball's all-time hits leader.

What about Sandy Koufax ? He went forever as the undisputed king of no-hitters with four, but Nolan Ryan obliterated his mark with seven. Baseball fans still genuflect to Koufax's name. The same goes for Joe DiMaggio, known as the game's Greatest Living Player before his death in 1999. He had just 361 career homers, and he didn't even reach 3,000 hits (2,214), but every time somebody moves past Joltin' Joe on a given list, it is huge.

That's because DiMaggio remains huge.

No question, those numbers in baseball make players huge, especially when it comes to rankings in the elite hitting and pitching categories for a lifetime or a season. But here's the truth: Courtesy of more than a century of Major League Baseball, filled with a slew of bigger-than-life individuals, neither Rodriguez nor any other current or future player can diminish the stature of the game's icons just by topping them in various categories.

Rodriguez understands all of this. You know as much, because of what he said a couple of weeks before he passed Gehrig for third place on the all-time RBI list along the way to tying Barry Bonds (at least for the moment) for second place behind Hank Aaron. Let's return to that night earlier this month at Yankee Stadium, where Rodriguez slammed his 661st career home run.

Willie Mays has 660.

"Nobody ever will ever pass Willie Mays," Rodriguez told reporters back then after he helped his Yankees to victory.

Just like that, A-Rod had one more homer than somebody who ranked third on the all-time list for decades behind Aaron with 755 and Babe Ruth with 714. Mays later dropped to fourth after he was passed by his godson, Barry Bonds, and Bonds eventually soared by Aaron in 2007 along the way to 762.

Rodriguez entered Friday's game in Oakland with 665 homers to push Mays farther down that all-time homer list, but that hasn't changed the reputation of one of the game's first five-tool athletes.

"This [attention given to A-Rod passing Mays] bothers me to the point that it's [ridiculous] to say this makes [Rodriguez] better than Willie Mays, because there is absolutely no truth to it," Aaron told me, and he wasn't ripping Rodriguez, who gets it.

Aaron was talking about those who don't.

Added Aaron: "I played against Willie for many years, and I know what kind of ballplayer he was ... I mean, history will tell what's what, really."

History keeps telling us that Mays was electrifying at the plate, in the field and on the bases. In fact, no player ever had more striking combination skills and charisma than The Say Hey Kid. He continues to run forever in center field in that black-and-white clip from the 1954 World Series. With his No. 24 to the camera, he remains in a graceful sprint toward a fly ball at the Polo Grounds that eventually will drop over his head and into his glove.

Now back to Rodriguez, who also said after his No. 661: "I've talked about [Mays] 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."

So is Aaron, whose career wasn't diminished by Bonds becoming the new home run king eight years ago. And, like Rodriguez, this isn't a reference to Bonds' controversies. This is about how baseball fans hug Aaron even tighter these days, not only as a splendid player, but as a classy person. 

Some remembered Aaron through personal observation from his days in Milwaukee and later in Atlanta with the Braves. Others remembered Aaron from his final days as a Major Leaguer with the Brewers. Most remembered Aaron through what they've learned over the years.

This gets deeper. Ruth hasn't played since 1935, and he died 13 years after that, but a previous generation didn't forget about the Big Bambino after Aaron ripped No.715 in April 1974. Not only that, subsequent generations still remember Ruth, and if you ask casual sports fans right now to name the greatest all-time baseball players, Ruth would surface within seconds.

They also would name Aaron and Mays.

See what I mean? If not, let's return to the beginning, when I mentioned Rodriguez surpassing Gehrig on the all-time RBI list. Gehrig was noted for a lot of things, ranging from his brilliant fielding to his clutch hitting, but he mostly became otherworldly as the person who played in more consecutive games (2,130) than anybody. It was considered one of the most unbreakable records in sports, and it belonged to Gehrig until Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and guess what?

We're still talking about Gehrig.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.