Alex Rodriguez is at his most genuine when he talks about baseball. His self-assuredness during these conversations is matched only by his astute observations. He speaks with a passion, a knowledge and a love of the game that comes across as sincere.
So it is a certainty that A-Rod's upcoming date with 3,000 hits -- he's five away as the Yankees start an eight-game homestand Wednesday night -- means a lot to him. He knows what it signifies in a sport he studies, obsesses about and, you could argue, has mastered. He cares so intensely about his legacy that it might be the very reason he has consistently tripped over his superior athletic gifts for the past two decades.
You have to be among the game's best hitters for 15 or more years to reach that magical 3K mark, and to do it with power takes historic talent. When he gets there, Rodriguez will join only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays with 3,000 hits and 600 homers.
Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds never did it.
Washington Nationals outfielder Denard Span, when asked for his thoughts about A-Rod's upcoming accomplishment, said 3,000 hits means a player is bound for the Hall of Fame. In A-Rod’s case, of course, it likely doesn't.
Players who have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, including Bonds, have not been voted into the Hall. Rafael Palmeiro, with 3,020 hits, 569 homers, a congressional finger wag and a PED suspension, fell off the ballot after four years.
So unless a large segment of the Baseball Writers Association of America has a change of heart, it is hard to imagine Rodriguez, who in 2014 served the longest PED-related suspension in baseball history and had already admitted to earlier steroid use, has much hope of making it to Cooperstown.
Still, Rodriguez’s accomplishment is special. Some will argue it signifies nothing, nullified by his serial PED use, but for others -- especially his fellow players -- it is a testament to the longevity, endurance and skill the milestone commands.
"You normally don’t get the total package like that, that has hit 30, 40, 50 home runs and has hit over .300," Span said. "Usually, it is either/or."
Asked about it, A-Rod, as has been his practice this season, is self-deprecating and eager to credit others.
“Besides that I’m getting old, it makes me proud that I’ve played for a long time and I’ve been able to be consistent,” Rodriguez told ESPNNewYork.com. “It is just consistency over a long period of time.”
Rodriguez, who turns 40 in July, then spoke about his many great teammates through the years. It is part of his 2015 mantra to focus on the team instead of himself. He has come across more humble this year, the way he did in 2009 when, after his initial admission, his first PED contrition tour opened at stadiums across the land.
“It is a very individual sport, but in many ways it a great team sport,” Rodriguez said. “I have had great teammates my entire career.”
It is a nice sentiment, one that sticks to his "A-Rod as a good guy" theme of 2015, but Rodriguez -- in his heart of hearts, with so high a baseball acumen -- surely knows it's about more than his team. There is maybe no greater individual accomplishment than joining the 3,000/600 club. In fact, with No. 3,000, it will just be A-Rod and Aaron with 3,000 hits, 600 homers and 2,000 RBIs.
But A-Rod’s past troubles have dimmed his pursuit of 3K. The always-easy comparison to Derek Jeter looms again, as Jeter’s pursuit of 3,000 was akin to the crowning of a king, with all the marketing deals to leverage along with it. It makes you wonder whether A-Rod -- with his far quieter march toward history -- would like a do-over.
“I think we would all take a do-over in some parts of our lives,” Rodriguez said. “There are no do-overs. All I can do now is control what I can control. I’m having a lot of fun playing ball.”
Besides the perpetually aggrieved David Ortiz, there has been no public display of angst toward Rodriguez among his fellow players. The supposed backlash for suing the players' association during his unwieldy attempt to skate on the Biogenesis allegation has been invisible.
"I think we would all take a do-over in some parts of our lives. There are no do-overs. All I can do now is control what I can control. I'm having a lot of fun playing ball."Alex Rodriguez, on what he might have done differently
When asked about A-Rod approaching 3,000 hits, teammates and opponents lauded the accomplishment. Does A-Rod's steroid history change their opinion? Players we spoke to mostly either chose not to comment or made it clear it remains an accomplishment despite everything. The overriding impression is that players respect much of what it has taken for Rodriguez to put up those numbers.
One of the more thoughtful Yankees, Chase Headley, who took Rodriguez’s old third-base position, spent most of a nearly 10-minute interview praising him. Still, he conceded when pressed, A-Rod’s accomplishment is not necessarily the same as other 3Kers'.
“I don’t know how you quantify it,” Headley said. “Is it a little bit different? It probably is. Is it that much different? It is so hard to put a finger on it to say, 'Without this, he would be that. And with this, he is this.' There is no way for me to say, 'Yes, but ' because I see how well he does things. I think people use PEDs because they work. You wouldn’t take a risk if you didn’t think it was going to help you. So in some respects, sure, there is some correlation, there is some percentage, there is something, but I have no way to quantify that.
“All I know is what I see in the cage, what I see every day: the work ethic, the knowledge, the consistency, the longevity. That’s extremely impressive, regardless of the other things. In my mind, it is not an issue. But in my mind, it is not what I’m paid to do. I’m not paid to judge or do anything like that.”
Headley nailed it as well as anyone. There is no way to put a percentage on how much PEDs have helped Rodriguez. How many of those hits were against pitchers who were also using PEDs? How many of his hits can a straight line trace to the juice?
“That stuff is so fuzzy, you can only look at it as 3,000 hits is 3,000 hits,” journeyman outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, currently in the New York Mets organization, said. “That’s something that not a lot of guys have done, being on top of your game for so many years. He is 40 now? He is still flicking balls out to right field. It is unreal. It is impressive.”
So while A-Rod is about to knock the 3,000th hit of his career -- he will be just the 29th player to do so in major league history -- the math is fuzzy. What does it mean? When asked about joining the 3K club, Rodriguez said he does not know quite how he will feel once it happens.
He is not alone.