MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Greatness of A-Rod difficult to measure

Slugger resides in 600-homer, 3,000-hit club, but past mistakes cloud accomplishments

Greatness of A-Rod difficult to measure

NEW YORK -- There has never been any question about the ability, the talent and the overall baseball greatness of Alex Rodriguez. The questions have been about the choices he made in attempting to maximize all that wonderful ability, talent and greatness.

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What happened Friday night at Yankee Stadium during the Yankees' 7-2 win over the Tigers put Rodriguez in an even more rarified atmosphere of baseball achievement. He delivered the 3,000th hit of his career, in prompt and no-doubt fashion. In the first inning, he hit the first pitch from Justin Verlander, a 95-mph fastball, over the wall in right-center.

Verlander was making just his second start of the season after coming back from a right triceps strain. But he has won both an American League Cy Young Award and an AL Most Valuable Player Award, so he was an opponent suitable for the size of this moment.

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Yankee Stadium erupted into a spontaneous and lasting roar. After rounding the bases, Rodriguez was mobbed by his teammates outside the dugout. When A-Rod finally reached the dugout, the incessant cheering of the crowd brought him out for a curtain call.

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There was some question about whether Rodriguez would be able to get the 3,000-hit ball back from the individual who caught the home run. But this did not seem to be of major importance to the 2015 edition of A-Rod. He said that the greatest moment of his career was the Yankees winning the 2009 World Series and he has no mementos from that experience.

"I don't have a ball, I don't have a bat, but I do have a memory," Rodriguez said. "And the memory lives forever."

On the surface, some of this was standard stuff for a man who has reached a major career milepost. Except that this career is only partially standard. The rest of it has been aided by performance-enhancing drugs.

So how can we measure this kind of greatness? It was there as far back as 1996, when Rodriguez, playing shortstop for the Seattle Mariners in the season in which he turned 21, was already a dominant offensive force.

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You could still see it Friday night in the Bronx, when his accomplishments reached a level that only two men previously had reached. There are now three players in baseball history who have 3,000 hits and more than 600 home runs: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.

There is, of course, one difference between Aaron and Mays on the one side and A-Rod on the other. The Aaron and Mays numbers stand without questions attached. There is no way of discovering, determining or knowing with any level of certainty what A-Rod's level of accomplishment would be had he never used PEDs.

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He has acknowledged two periods of performance-enhancing drug use. One came when he was with the Rangers. The other occurred much more recently in connection with the Biogenesis clinic in South Florida. That earned Rodriguez a suspension for the entire 2014 season.

All has been forgiven at Yankee Stadium, and that is perfectly natural. Rodriguez has come back from his suspension to perform very well for the Yankees. For a man who will turn 40 next month, designated hitter may now be the perfect position for Rodriguez. In any case, fans cheer for players who can help their team win.

This season, Rodriguez has been a more graceful and grateful public figure than he had been in the past. He thanked Yankees manager Joe Girardi, he thanked his teammates, he thanked the Tigers who had paid respect to him, he thanked the Yankees organization and he thanked the Yankees fans, as he has repeatedly this season.

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The impression left here is of a man who didn't have baseball for the first time in his adult life in 2014 and is doubly glad to have another chance.

"A year ago today, I didn't know if this day would have come," Rodriguez said.

So he is a man counting not only his hits, but his blessings. He has had no shortage in either category.

One way or another, Rodriguez stands with Aaron and Mays in the 600-homer, 3,000-hit club. There is one place where he likely won't be standing with Aaron and Mays. That would be the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The vast majority of Hall of Fame voters have turned their backs on a variety of candidates associated with PEDs: Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc. It is difficult to conjure up a scenario in which all the opposition to PED usage would suddenly be forgotten on behalf of a Rodriguez candidacy.

But on this night, happy endings abounded for Rodriguez and the Yankees. They beat the Tigers. Starting pitcher Adam Warren gave them eight strong innings.

"Once he hits 3,000 with a home run, as a pitcher, you have to win the game," Warren said.

That, Rodriguez said at the end of the evening, was the most important thing. The Yankees are winning again with A-Rod, even if the history he makes while they win comes with question marks attached.

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