Commentary

A-Rod makes K.C. series a must-see

Even with rotten Royals in town, pursuit of No. 600 makes Stadium the place to be

Updated: July 23, 2010, 2:07 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- To the seemingly never-ending list of assertions that begin, "Only Alex Rodriguez ... " add a couple more.

Only Alex Rodriguez could make a late July series between the Yankees, the team with the best record in baseball, and the Kansas City Royals, who are among the league's worst, a must-see event.

The home run A-Rod hit in Thursday night's game would have been a big one under any circumstances, coming as it did in the seventh inning of an unexpectedly tough battle with the pesky but outclassed Royals, who to that point were hanging tough on the short end of a 5-4 score.

But the fact that it was the 599th of his crazy quilt of a career elevated the rest of this weekend from the category of busywork to the realm of can't-miss baseball.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensAlex Rodriguez smacks home run No. 599 Thursday night, turning a weekend series against the rotten Royals into a real blockbuster.

"I hope he does it [Friday]," Joe Girardi said. "I hope he gets it out of the way early so we don't have to talk about it. This is when you kinda get a little concerned."

With apologies to the manager, who would rather deal with such mundane matters as winning baseball games, you can bet his bosses in the business of selling tickets to Yankees games and merchandise would much prefer that this thing drag on until, oh, say, Sunday afternoon.

Because once Rodriguez leaned into reliever Robinson Tejeda's 0-2 fastball and drove it into the right-field seats, right above a billboard selling office supplies, it ensured that every one of his at-bats between now and the number attained by only six other players in baseball history will keep the seats filled and the flashbulbs popping.

It might even get the crowd to stop doing the wave, which it did when A-Rod came to bat in the eighth with his first chance to join the (fairly) exclusive 600 Club. As they did when A-Rod was at 499, the umpires replaced the game balls with specially marked balls to commemorate the occasion.

And when A-Rod responded with a liner into the right-center field gap that landed a good 15 yards short of the fence, there were audible groans and maybe even a few boos from the crowd. A-Rod's third hit of the night drove in the final run of the Yankees' 10-4 victory, but it might have been the most disappointing RBI double ever hit by the home team in the history of all three Yankee Stadiums.

"It was certainly a fun at-bat," Rodriguez said. "The fans really got into it. I saw all the light bulbs go off. I actually had to take the first pitch to refocus my eyes."

But according to A-Rod, the real refocusing came between last year and this one, when, he says, he came to appreciate the pleasure of achieving team goals over the satisfaction of personal accomplishment.

"Nothing is as exciting as what happened last November," he said, referring to winning the World Series, which for the franchise was No. 27, and No. 5 for a bunch of his teammates, but for him was the first. "Now I have a different perspective on things. Early in my career, I loved winning, but it was about accumulating numbers and hoping to get to the postseason. Now, it's about one goal, and along the way you hope to get big home runs. I'm in a different place right now, a much better place."

To which Derek Jeter sardonically replied, "He's in a different place. Across the street."

That has been A-Rod's main talking point this season, his sudden discovery in his 16th major league season that baseball is a team game first, an individual showcase second. Whether he is sincere or not, only he knows, but even Jeter acknowledged, "He seems to be enjoying himself this year. I don't really know his mindset, but he comes to the field and he appears to be having fun."

The Yankees, and especially Girardi, hope the new Alex will not go through the turmoil he experienced in between hitting home runs No. 499 and 500, a stretch that lasted nine games, 28 at-bats, and dozens of pre- and postgame grilling sessions from the media.

"My concern is he'll be answering questions about it every day and he'll start to press a little bit," Girardi said. "Only time will tell."

There are several reasons it might be different this time. For one, everyone seems to hit well against the Royals, and A-Rod has already hit two milestones against K.C. -- the first home run of his career came against Tom Gordon, then pitching for the Royals, on June 12, 1995, when A-Rod was a Seattle Mariner, and his 500th came off K.C.'s Kyle Davies right here on Aug. 4, 2007.

Davies is scheduled to start Saturday if the chase gets that far, which it very well may not. Friday's starter is Brian Bannister, whom A-Rod has tapped for three home runs in seven career at-bats.

"Don't go jinxing me now," he said when that history was repeated to him. "I'm gonna hit it, and when I do, hopefully like tonight, it's gonna count."

Plenty of other things about A-Rod have changed between home run No. 500 and home run No. 600. Three years, one divorce, one damaging revelation about performance-enhancing drug use, two confessional news conferences, a hip surgery, a string of celebrity girlfriends and one ill-advised trip across a pitcher's mound in Oakland, to name just a few.

"The difference is night and day," he said. "And I'll tell you, I'm enjoying the game so much more now than I ever have; I get more enjoyment out of little things, playing the team game. After winning the world championship with this team, there's really no comparison [between] a team accomplishment and a personal accomplishment. I have a much better perspective now."

And although he denied it at the time, he acknowledged that he felt the pressure in each of those nine games as he struggled to join the 500 Club. "Looking back now, I think I was pressing a little bit," he said. "But I look at things differently now. What's ironic about all of this is one day I'm gonna look back on all of it and say, I played with Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. That's what I'm most proud of, being a part of such a great team and just trying to be one of the guys as much as I can."

That kind of stuff is for another day at some undetermined point in the future. First, Alex Rodriguez has to be able to say he played with Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

That's the team the Yankees want him to become a member of, and preferably before the weekend is out.

GAME NOTES: Sometimes numbers don't lie: Mark Teixeira, who came in with seven extra-base hits and six home runs in 11 career at-bats versus K.C. starter Bruce Chen, added two more hits, a double and single, his first two times up before striking out looking in his third at-bat. "It just seems like I'm always in a hot streak when I face him," said the unfailingly modest Teixeira. ... CC Sabathia won his ninth straight decision, but it wasn't pretty. He allowed the most baserunners of any start in his career, 15, on 11 hits and four walks. The 11 hits matched his season high, and he also committed a balk. But he limited the Royals to just four runs, three earned, helped by some shoddy baserunning and two outfield assists by Brett Gardner, who gunned runners down at third and home. ... Derek Jeter hit an inside-the-park homer in the third on a drive to center field that David DeJesus seemed to have, then lost, when he crashed into the fence. DeJesus left the game with a sprained wrist and will miss the rest of the series. Jeter had hit one previous inside-the-park homer, in 1996, and the runner he drove in was none other than Joe Girardi. ... David Robertson pitched well again, coming on in relief of Sabathia with two on in the seventh and getting a popout and a strikeout to escape the jam. ... Likewise, Joba Chamberlain pitched another troublesome eighth inning, loading the bases on a two infield hits and a walk before getting Jose Guillen to ground into an inning-ending forceout. ... Friday night, A.J. Burnett (7-8, 4.99) returns to the mound for the first time since having to leave the game Sunday after cutting his hands on the clubhouse door in a temper tantrum. Burnett faces RHP Bannister (7-8, 5.65) in a 7:05 p.m. ET start.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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