NEW YORK -- It took Alex Rodriguez 21 years, 2,630 games and 10,034 at-bats to reach 2,999 hits.
And just one pitch to reach 3,000.
The New York Yankees' designated hitter, enjoying an excellent comeback season after sitting out an unprecedented 162 games for illegal performance-enhancing drug use, hit the first pitch he saw from Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander on Friday night and sent it into the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium to join Hank Aaron as only the second player in baseball history to collect more than 600 home runs, 2,000 RBIs and 3,000 hits.
The night belonged to A-Rod, who did not keep the 44,588 fans in attendance waiting very long, jumping on the former Cy Young and AL MVP winner's first-pitch fastball, clocked at 95 mph, and sending it on a line into the seats midway between the Yankees' bullpen and the foul pole. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was calculated at 373 feet, meaning it only would have been a home run at Yankee Stadium.
"I was just thinking be aggressive, get a good pitch to hit and not try to do too much,'' Rodriguez said. "To be quite honest, a year ago today, I didn't know if this day would ever come. There were some really dark days, I got to tell you.''
This was not one of them. After Rodriguez collected two hits -- and drew a very unpopular walk in his final at-bat -- in Thursday night's game against the Miami Marlins to pull to within one of the milestone, the crowd at Yankee Stadium came pumped to see history.
And Rodriguez himself was loose before the game, laughing and joking with teammates and reporters as he headed out for batting practice.
"Well, last night I just kept staring at the ceiling about 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning,'' he said. "I didn't get much sleep just thinking about the day and anticipating what today would be like. But the fans, they were incredible and just gave me a lot of confidence coming into today.''
But it's hardly likely A-Rod could have anticipated the day would go like this, so reminiscent of that day four years ago, July 9, 2011, when Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit, also on a home run, and also off a former Cy Young winner, David Price, and now a teammate of Verlander's.
Rodriguez entered the game with good numbers against Verlander -- 10 hits, including four home runs, in 28 lifetime at-bats for a .357 average. He was anticipating a first-pitch fastball and got it.
"I wasn't really sure if he'd be swinging early or not," said Verlander, who was making just his second start of the season after missing 10 weeks with a triceps strain. "It's a pitch that historically I know that he likes, outside, on the black, but it was just a hair up. I didn't miss by much; he's just a really good hitter. In retrospect, I think he was trying to get 3,000 out of the way.''
As he made contact, Rodriguez stopped briefly at home plate to follow the flight of the ball, and then loped slowly around the bases, without displaying any emotion except for pointing into the stands, where his two young daughters were sitting.
He was met at home plate by Mark Teixeira, the on-deck hitter, who hugged him, and then passed through a receiving line of his teammates, all of whom came out of the dugout to greet him.
The Yankees, who had pointedly ignored his pursuit of 660 home runs due to a contractual dispute over performance bonuses, flashed "CONGRATULATIONS, ALEX. 3000'' on the scoreboard as the crowd, which had been standing from the moment he entered the batter's box, erupted in raucous cheers. Even some of the Tigers tipped their caps from the opposing dugout.
After a brief curtain call, the game resumed. The entire celebration lasted less than 90 seconds.
After the home run, Rodriguez said he retreated to the Yankees' clubhouse to be alone with his thoughts.
"I was just very emotional, overwhelmed,'' he said. "I was doing everything in my power just to stay focused in the moment and try to continue to plug away. We had a very important game we had to win and I wanted to keep contributing. Just a little bit of a tug-of-war between staying in the moment and reflecting."
Rodriguez did not get another hit in the game, but the Yankees got home runs from Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius and received eight innings of two-run pitching out of starter Adam Warren to win their third straight.
"That was such a neat thing,'' Warren said. "You think about how many guys play baseball and how few have hit 3,000. Once he gets the hit, as a pitcher, you have to win the game. So you feel a little extra pressure. I just wanted to make the night about him.''
And so it was, even after the final out, when Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera made a special trip across the field to hug Rodriguez before he disappeared into the dugout.
"Twenty years from now, that's really what I'll take away from this game,'' Rodriguez said. "A player like Cabrera coming over to hug me, and the fans' reaction and sharing it with my teammates.''
Added Gardner, who was also on the field when Jeter got his 3,000th hit: "It was just a lot of fun for us to be a part of and to witness, and it was pretty special. You're talking about two pretty special guys. I probably won't be able to witness any more guys who get 3,000 hits the rest of my career, so I've definitely been a part of some pretty cool memories, and tonight was one of them.''
Due to his suspension and injuries, it took Rodriguez the longest amount of time to go from hit No. 2,500 to No. 3,000 of the 29 players to reach the milestone. He picked up hit No. 2,500 on Sept. 2, 2009. In addition to the 162-game suspension that cost him the 2014 season, Rodriguez, who turns 40 at the end of July, has missed significant time due to surgery on both hips.
It has been a remarkable season for Rodriguez, who came to spring training unsure if he would make the Yankees' Opening Day roster and concerned about how he would be received. With three years and more than $60 million remaining on his contract, the Yankees reluctantly took him back for 2015. He has been a productive player, batting third most games as the designated hitter.
The 3,000-hit accomplishment comes with less strings than when Rodriguez tied Willie Mays for fourth place on the career home run list with 660 earlier this season. The Yankees and Rodriguez have a milestone bonus agreement that could be worth $6 million, but the Yankees contend they have the right to trigger the deal and so far have not. The two sides have agreed to handle the disagreement during the offseason. Eventually, it might end up in the hands of Major League Baseball arbitrator Fredric Horowitz, who rejected Rodriguez's appeal of the Biogenesis suspension in January 2014.
Unlike the $30 million in possible milestone home run bonuses when Rodriguez signed his 10-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees in 2007, there were no side deals made to compensate him for reaching 3,000 hits.
As a result, the Yankees have been far more receptive to commemorating the achievement, running a logo on YES Network broadcasts every time Rodriguez got a hit to track his pursuit of the milestone.
Before Thursday's game, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Rodriguez's pursuit felt a little different from the 660 home runs because there is no extra controversy with it.
"I find it very impressive that anyone could get 3,000 hits, no matter what the circumstances are," Girardi said. "I think it is a different feel because there are no records. Obviously, it is a pretty elite club, but there is no record to it. There is nothing attached to it. It is a big number."
Accumulating 3,000 hits once meant automatic induction into the Hall of Fame, but no longer does. Rafael Palmeiro, who reached 3,020 hits, fell off the Baseball Writers' Association of America's ballot due to his failed performance-enhancing drug test.
Rodriguez is the second Yankee to reach 3,000 hits. Jeter picked up his 3,000th in 2011. Unlike Jeter, Rodriguez accumulated his hits with more than one club (Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and the Yankees).
The only downer of the night was the inability of Yankees security to retrieve the ball from Zack Hample, a self-described pro at catching home run balls, who snagged it and told the Yankees he had no intention of giving it back.
After the game, the Yankees sent team president Randy Levine and COO Lonn Trost to negotiate for the ball, without success.
"Maybe years ago that would have been kind of an important thing for me,'' Rodriguez said. "By far, nothing that I've done personally would ever compare to winning the championship in 2009. I don't have a ball, I don't have a bat from that, but I do have a memory, and the memory lives forever. Kind of the same way I feel about today.''