It’s 4:47 PM at Yankee Stadium. The Bronx is overcast. A handful of dedicated fans are in the stands – maybe a few hundred. A group of writers and photographers stand on the warning track in front of the first-base dugout. A collection of special visitors stand a bit to their left, directly behind the batting cage that sits at home plate as the Yankees take batting practice.
At 4:48 PM, heads turn towards the stairs leading out of the Yankee dugout. As a few players take cuts, Alex Rodriguez emerges from the darkness with a smile. He picks up a weighted metal rod laying on the grass to the right of the cage, puts a batting donut on it, and begins to stretch out. After about ten minutes, he puts on his helmet and chats with Joe Girardi, who’s stationed behind the cage, and waits for his turn. Then he begins to hit.
On A-Rod’s fifth and final go around, he starts swinging for the fences. A few balls make it over the left field bullpen, and some to the right field seats. He ends with a shot off of the blue “Workmen’s Circle MultiCare Center” sign in left, just above where opposing relievers sit. He walks back behind the cage and shares a laugh with Chase Headley and Chris Young. Rodriguez then walks off the field, stopping to sign an autograph for a young fan. At exactly 5:08, he disappears into the clubhouse.
Around 7:20 PM, A-Rod emerges once again onto the field to the on-deck circle. After Chase Headley flies to left, Jay-Z plays over the speakers as Alex Rodriguez is announced to the crowd of 44,588. They stand and cheer.
At 7:23 PM, Justin Verlander plants a 95 mile-per-hour fastball belt high, on the outside edge of the plate. Alex Rodriguez makes contact.
“I got a good pitch to hit, and hit a bomb,” Rodriguez said.
The specially-marked milestone baseball soars into right field. Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez jogs back to his right, looking up. A-Rod moves at a near-identical speed up the first-base line while carrying the bat in his left hand. Martinez’ back thumps into the end of the auxiliary scoreboard inside the right field wall. Rodriguez drops the bat halfway up the first-base line. The ball lands five or six rows behind Martinez. This is Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit.
“I was just thinking be aggressive, get a hit, and don’t try to do too much,” he said. “That’s kind of been my approach all year. I’ve pretty much forgotten about the home run and have tried to be a good hitter, not do too much, and really shorten my swing. And that’s something that I thought about a lot when I was away last year. To make some serious adjustments.”
He’s forgotten about the home run. Out of the 18,000+ players who have played in the Major Leagues, only three have hit more home runs than Alex Rodriguez. And yet, after 21 years in the majors, the 39 year-old is still making adjustments.
“The couple things about Alex that you see on a daily basis is a guy who truly loves the game, works very hard at his craft, and comes ready to play every day,” said manager Joe Girardi. “Those are the things that you want from your players. And he does them.”
Many have noted, including Girardi, that Rodriguez looks his best when he’s going the other way and simply trying to take what’s given to him. Only 15 of his 61 hits this season have been to left field. He’s hitting line drives at a career-high 30 percent through 262 plate appearances. He’s swinging at a low percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone. Rodriguez has shown a focus at this stage in his career that isn’t too common for those who’ve accomplished just a quarter of what he has.
“He’s been very open about how appreciative he is to get the opportunity to come back and play,” said Brett Gardner. “He still knows how to hit.”
Rodriguez, one of the game’s greats in terms of numbers, has been there for his teammates all season long. He hasn’t missed any time due to injury, and his 1.85 WARP makes him one of the 50 most valued players in baseball at the moment. His careful eye has also helped create numerous run-scoring opportunities, which has helped the Yankees to a 37-30 record.
So when the time came for A-Rod’s big moment, his teammates were there for him. Mark Teixeira threw his bat in the air out of sheer joy when the ball landed in the right field seats. Some leaped over the dugout railing. When Rodriguez crossed home plate, there was an impromptu party waiting for his arrival atop the dugout stairs, led by two especially tight hugs from Teixeira, a longtime teammate, and Girardi, who grabbed the back of A-Rod’s jersey and gave him some personal words of affirmation.
“This whole week has been a special week,” Rodriguez said. “The way I see my teammates react – they’re enjoying this just as much as I am. That means a lot.”
Now that this major milestone is out of the way, Alex Rodriguez has gone back to what he has gotten him back to the top of the Yankees lineup – diligence.
“I know it was really important to him, but he didn’t make a huge deal out of this,” said Girardi. “He went right back to work. You see him back down in the cage swinging. That’s leading by example. I got my 3,000th hit – now let’s go win the game.”
The song has often remained the same when it comes to discussing Alex Rodriguez. The legitimacy of his numbers are often questioned, as is the character of a man who cheated at the game of baseball on more than one occasion. This season, however, Rodriguez has opened up a few different conversations with his play. A different, more careful approach has led to a an .888 OPS, and just 62 games passed before he accrued the 61 hits necessary to join the 3,000 hit club. Rodriguez has reinvented his game, and for a night, he had the opportunity to celebrate his rebirth with 45,000 of his closest friends.