- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Nearly nine months after overcoming his choker label and being hailed as a hero of the New York Yankees' World Series win, Alex Rodriguez's countdown to 600 home runs is barely registering in the public's imagination, even here in the Big Apple.
So much for all that talk about A-Rod finally earning his pinstripes in this past year's playoffs.
Is the problem just general ambivalence toward A-Rod himself, or that his approach of the milestone was blotted out last week by the passing of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and announcer Bob Sheppard, as well as the pitching troubles of Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett and Joba Chamberlain?
After all the steroid scandals (including A-Rod's), are baseball fans just finally over their love of the long ball?
It's all that, and this: Rodriguez isn't even the Yankees' best everyday player. That honor belongs to Robinson Cano.
Heading into Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Angels, Rodriguez needs just two more home runs to reach No. 600, a plateau only six other big leaguers have reached: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa. As baseball records go, joining the 600 Club is a very big deal -- much more difficult to achieve than 3,000 hits or 300 wins.
And yet, the simultaneous rise of Cano with Rodriguez's ordinary season of 15 homers, 73 RBIs and a .272 batting average makes the All-Star second baseman a more important story for the Yankees' short-term prospects and their long-term future.
Cano, 27, is generally recognized as one of the top 10 position players in baseball, whereas A-Rod has been only the third-best third baseman in his own division this season, behind Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria and Boston's Adrian Beltre.
Neither rival has A-Rod's historical standing, yet Longoria beat Rodriguez in the American League All-Star balloting the past two seasons despite the Yankees' massive following and success.
The final vote seemed to recognize that A-Rod has ruled the past but is no better than the sixth or seventh reason the Yankees are sitting atop the AL East standings. Cano is having a coming-of-age season -- in addition to playing Gold Glove defense, he has two more home runs than Rodriguez (17 to 15) and a higher slugging percentage (.565 to .488) -- and that has had bigger ramifications for the team. Given the way the Yankees are constructed and aging, they need Cano to stay at this level.
Rodriguez turns 35 on July 27, and rumblings have surfaced about his age or his cranky hip starting to eat at his skill. Some sabermetricians have been crunching the numbers and debating for nearly two years about whether the Yankees will regret the seven years left on A-Rod's 10-year, $275 million contract or whether his power numbers will stay high enough to pass Bonds' all-time home run record of 762.
Nate Silver, the author of Baseball Prospectus, caused a sensation last year when his PECOTA analysis set Rodriguez's chances of surpassing Bonds at only about 30 percent. Others say that A-Rod is already in a slow descent (from 54 homers in '07 to 35, then 30, plus a projected 30-homer pace this year) but that he'll hang on long enough to become baseball's home run king.
Rodriguez's talent is unquestioned. But it's funny, you never get the sense that people regard every A-Rod at-bat as a must-see event. You rarely hear breathless talk about how he's walking among baseball's all-time gods now -- even though the stats say he is.
Rodriguez's many off-the-field dramas have hurt him. Nobody is writing sonnets about Rodriguez's sweet swing this week. There are no signs that fans are planning to rush to get a bleacher seat in the Yankee Stadium outfield Tuesday night or bring long-handled fishing nets on the off chance they'll catch A-Rod's historic ball during this homestand.
The last frontier for Rodriguez to win over fans was supposed to be postseason success -- and he hit .365 with six homers in three playoff rounds this past fall. He was clutch. Yet regard for him doesn't seem to have undergone lasting change.
Remember the clubs that intentionally walked Mark Teixeira earlier this season to pitch to A-Rod, even with the bases loaded, despite A-Rod's amazing career numbers in such situations? At the time, Teixeira was struggling to hit .200.
How about the sight of barely known Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden shouting at A-Rod to stay off his pitching mound when A-Rod jogged across it after an out earlier this year? Could you see a pitcher ever doing that to a legend such as Mays or Aaron, unless it was someone with the stature of Bob Gibson?
A-Rod will get his 600th homer and plenty more.
But true reverence still seems a long way off. Cano is better right now. And something about the long ball doesn't awe us quite the same way anymore.
Cano's dominance. A-Rod being A-Rod. PEDs. They add up to indifference.