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After 12 games, 13 days, and 46 at-bats of confused, muted, pensive anticipation, Alex Rodriguez finally blasted his 600th home run on a muggy afternoon off Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays. Somehow, it seems fitting that A-Rod's "milestone" came not in primetime, or on a weekend, or on national television, but at 1:25 pm on a nondescript Wednesday, the virtual nadir of the weekly news cycle.
Sports media outlets, in their infinite wisdom, will breathlessly point out that the home run came three years to the day after the Yankees' third baseman socked No. 500. ESPN will call up its graphics on the seven men who have hit 600, dusting off charts that sat idle for nearly two weeks. And given sportswriters' need to write something about this, there will be columns, blogs and podcasts on wondering why no one cares about such a significant statistical accomplishment.
In reality, the answer is very straightforward. The sports world is indifferent to A-Rod's 600th home run because numerical benchmarks in baseball have been rendered virtually meaningless by the steroid era. And A-Rod is as much to blame for that as anyone.
More than any other sport, baseball has been a game of numbers. Because of its 134-year history (including more than a century of virtually the same format), baseball has a larger wealth of statistics to draw from than the NFL, NBA, or any other league. And fans loved to compare numbers, debating whether Hack Wilson's monster 1930 season (56 homers, a record 191 RBIs) was greater than any of Babe Ruth's years or if Ted Williams' remarkable .553 on-base percentage in 1941 was an unassailable record.
I should know—I was one of those stats junkies. My introduction to the sports world (outside of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann on SportsCenter) was a beat-up, vomit-colored 1990 edition of The Baseball Record Book. I must have read that thing cover to cover 100 times, memorizing the leaders in the big offensive categories (Tris Speaker: 792 doubles) and learning the names and totals of each member of the 500+ home run club.
Statistics were the common thread linking the past, present and future, our way to compare Babe Ruth to Albert Pujols to Bryce Molder. They were vital to weaving the ongoing narrative of the game and fueled millions of discussions at dinner tables, water coolers and sports bars.
Then came the PEDecades.
Starting in 1998, the records books were re-written seemingly every year in seemingly every power-hitting statistic. After staying put for 37 years, the single-season home run record went from 61 to 70 to 73 in just four seasons. Barry Bonds broke Williams' unbreakable on-base percentage mark twice, including an ungodly .609 OBP in 2004. Bonds even attained baseball's most coveted record, passing Hank Aaron to becoming the all-time leader in career home runs with 762.
Only it was all tainted. Every player who broke Roger Maris' 61-homer barrier—Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—was named in the Mitchell Report as a user of performance-enhancing drugs. Roger Clemens, the most dominant pitcher of the last 20 years, has also been linked to steroid use, and his sordid saga has become more worthy of a bigtop than a baseball diamond.
Then there's A-Rod. The Yankees' superstar confessed to using steroids from 2001-03, when he hit a combined 156 home runs and won the first of his three American League MVP awards. Take those homers away, and Wednesday's blast was just his 444th, a much more pedestrian total. But should all his home runs be considered legitimate because using PEDs was the norm during that period? Should all his stats be shrouded in suspicion? Should everyone's?
That's why the fans' reaction to A-Rod's road to 600 was so confused. That's why the strongest emotion many people can muster today is relief that the story will finally leave the news cycle. That's why if A-Rod ever gets to 763 home runs, the reaction will be a larger version of this week's mixed indifference. Because thanks to the steroid era, playing the numbers game just isn't fun anymore.