NEW YORK—Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player to hit 600 home runs and did it with style, driving a pitch into Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in center field exactly three years to the day after his 500th homer.
A-Rod reached the milestone Wednesday after a 12-game drought with a first-inning homer off Toronto's Shaun Marcum. Rodriguez connected with a 2-0 pitch over the middle of the plate for his 17th home run of the season, giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead on a sweltering summer afternoon.
By hitting the homer into Monument Park, a stadium worker could retrieve the ball for him.
A-Rod raised a hand slightly in triumph as he rounded first base, then completed his trot to the roar of the crowd. He was greeted at home plate by Yankees captain Derek Jeter, both of them slapping outstretched hands above their heads.
The rest of the team also came out to greet Rodriguez. After stepping off the field, then coming out for a curtain call, A-Rod kept on receiving congratulations in the Yankees' dugout.
At 35 years, 8 days, Rodriguez joined an elite club that includes Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630) and Sammy Sosa (609). The next youngest was Ruth at 36 years, 196 days.
The ball he hit was the 104th specially marked one that had been used for each of his plate appearances since reaching No. 599. The Yankees immediately put commemorative T-shirts on sale at concession stands for $25 each, and one stand behind home plate sold out within two innings.
The milestone homer provided a lift during a trying stretch for the Yankees, who had lost three in a row. Not only have they watched the Tampa Bay Rays pass them for first place in the AL East, off the field they are still mourning the recent loss of owner George Steinbrenner, beloved public-address announcer Bob Sheppard and former manager Ralph Houk.
Despite saying he's been more relaxed than he was when trying for his 500th homer, Rodriguez went just 9 for 46 after homering on July 22, the longest stretch between Nos. 599 and 600 for any of the seven to reach the mark. Mays was next at 21 at-bats, according to STATS LLC. A-Rod went 28 without a home run before 500.
"I know Alex is going to be fine," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before the game. "Maybe I lead him off one day so he can hit the home run in the first inning and get it over with."
Girardi laughed at his own joke.
"No, I mean, he's our cleanup hitter and he's going to be fine," Girardi said. "And yeah, I mean, he's struggling a little bit. But it's not like all of our hitters have, you know, have not went through struggles."
Rodriguez entered the game 4 for 17 with one home run against Marcum. He received a brief ovation when he came up again in the third inning, then grounded out to shortstop. He also popped out to shortstop with two on in the fifth.
The Yankees' slugger turned 35 last Tuesday, putting his home run pace far ahead of the rest. Ruth reached the mark in 1931 at fewer games, though -- 2,044 to 2,227.
In the three years since hitting No. 500, much has changed for Rodriguez.
During a tumultuous spring training of 2009, he admitted to using steroids while playing for the Texas Rangers from 2001-03. He also had major hip surgery that kept him out the first month last year, as the team adjusted to high-profile newcomers CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira without him.
He returned with a fresh outlook that put the team first, helping lead the Yankees to their first World Series championship since 2000 and reversing a trend of personal playoff failures.
Even though he went homerless in his first 41 at-bats this year and has connected at a much slower rate compared to the rest of his career, the 13-time All-Star has been saying that No. 600 is merely a springboard to better things -- mainly helping his team win, but also reaching Bonds' record of 762 home runs.
Being the home run king comes with a tarnished crown, though.
After Bonds eclipsed Aaron's record with his 756th in 2007 amid accusations of steroid use -- something Bonds vehemently denies -- talk immediately turned to A-Rod, who days earlier had become the fastest to No. 500. He was supposed to be the player who would restore credibility to American sports' most cherished record, but that all changed two years later.
In response to a SportsIllustrated.com report and mounting speculation, A-Rod admitted to using steroids as he hit 156 homers with Texas. He has 255 with the Yankees and 189 with the Seattle Mariners, who picked him No. 1 in 1993 amateur draft.
Rodriguez is among only three players, along with Reggie Jackson and Darrell Evans, to hit 100 home runs for three different teams.
For one of the most scrutinized players in baseball, there was little fanfare in the run-up to No. 600 -- perhaps it's Steroid Era fatigue or the fact that Rodriguez became the fourth player to reach the mark in the last 10 years after none in 31 years.
The pursuit of the home run record gets lucrative now. As part of his $275 million, 10-year deal signed after opting out of his contract during the 2007 World Series, Rodriguez can earn up to $30 million more for six milestone homers. The first would be tying Willie Mays. He'd get $6 million more each time for matching Ruth, Aaron and Bonds and breaking the record.
Rodriguez hit No. 100 in August 1998 with Seattle, No. 200 in May 2001 and No. 300 in April 2003 with Texas. His 400th home run came on June 8, 2005, against Milwaukee during his second season with the Yankees.