A-Rod can't inject meaning into No. 600

Poor Alex Rodriguez, he coulda been a contenduh. In a perfect big league world, a world in which sluggers drink their milk and take their Vitamin C and do their chin-ups, Rodriguez would have been everybody's all-American boy.

Handsome. Clean-cut. Driven to succeed. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Rodriguez would've been the luckiest No. 13 alive. He would've smashed his 600th untainted home run for the world famous New York Yankees, and millions would've continued to cheer him as he passed Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and beyond.

Instead, Rodriguez took the heavy lumber to his own good name. He ruined the experience for everyone, most notably himself, by trading his physical gifts and blue-collar work ethic for a package of performance-enhancing drugs and an enabling cousin to be named later.

Listen, steroids or no steroids, boli or no boli, it takes a hell of an athlete to send 600 pitched baseballs into orbit in fewer than 2,300 regular-season games. If all major league hitters pumped their bodies with nuclear fuel and loaded their bats with superballs and cork, the vast majority still would've struggled to match half of A-Rod's sum.

So Rodriguez didn't become the seventh man to hurdle the 600-homer barrier simply because he had a better back-room chemist than most. A-Rod also relied on his otherworldly swing and hand-eye coordination to get there, not to mention a pregame commitment to preparation and fitness that would humble most pros.

And that's the great shame of A-Rod's Shakespearean tragedy. Without drugs, his talent and effort might've toppled the genuine career and single-season home run records held by Aaron and Roger Maris, never mind the living, breathing pharmacies that passed them.

A-Rod's clean pursuit of history would've taken longer, and could've ultimately fallen short. But had he chosen that path, imagine the feel-good karma that would radiate from Rodriguez right now, in a summer defined by LeBron's embarrassing bailout, and in a time shaped by all the death and dying in the Yankees' midst.

The career home run record was the most prestigious milestone in sports, at least until it fell into Barry Bonds' hands. Rodriguez could've restored the romance and majesty to the mark, if only he were secure enough to gamble on himself.

A-Rod said he turned to performance-enhancing drugs for three seasons in Texas because he wanted to live up to his $252 million contract, a deal designed to double the previous team sport standard -- Kevin Garnett's $126 million score with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rodriguez claimed his absurd wage created a burden he couldn't manage on his own.

Funny, but A-Rod always said he was most proud of his quarter-billion-dollar-plus deal. "The only thing bigger than my contract," he told me once, "is the New York Yankees."

When he confessed to crumbling under the weight of that contract, Rodriguez was sure to confine his steroid use to his Texas years, before the penalty phase of baseball's drug program kicked in. Only those who tried to follow A-Rod's logic -- in effect, the contract made me do it -- were left with a question Rodriguez couldn't answer.

Why did you stop using steroids as a Yankee, when the magnitude of the New York stage and, eventually, the size of an even bigger contract ($305 million, including $30 million in bonuses for reaching several homer milestones, including the record-breaking smash) naturally created more pressure to perform than you faced in Texas?

Truth is, Rodriguez's admitted actions challenge the credibility of every swing he's taken. How many of his 600 homers were the product of some underground potion or pill? Two hundred? Four hundred? Six hundred?

When a ballplayer admits he was a cheat for three full seasons, and only admits it after he's been outed by a media outlet (in this case, Sports Illustrated), everything out of his mouth sounds like the old Bob Arum line: Yesterday, I was lying. Today, I'm telling the truth.

Of course, Rodriguez is the one who put Rodriguez on trial in a case that never ends. Last summer, when I asked Derek Jeter why he never went the boli route, he talked of the lessons he learned from a father who worked as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. Jeter mentioned two other factors in his decision to play it clean: the potential side effects of steroid use, and the lethal hit of disclosure on a user's public image.

"Eventually," Jeter said, "I think you're making a deal with the devil."

Rodriguez's Faustian bargain came with the heaviest price. A-Rod was the only active baseball player to make Forbes' top 10 list of most disliked sports figures; Jeter was named baseball's most marketable player in a SportsBusiness Daily survey, and was the only baseball player named in the most recent Harris Interactive poll ranking America's favorite sports stars (Jeter finished third overall).

A-Rod is free to add to his résumé and trophy case, and to attempt to become the first player to hit 800 home runs. But if the celebration appears muted, well, Rodriguez party-pooped his own bash.

Too bad for the slugger. He could've touched them all.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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