(Reuters) – New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez belted his 599th career home run on Thursday, exuding a sense of calm and enjoyment that he lacked three years ago when trying to reach the 500 milestone.
That was a different A-Rod, a player who was affected by the constant distractions that went with being the highest paid player, in the New York glare, and playing in the shadow of local hero and team captain Derek Jeter.
It was also before his admission of past steroid use and his first World Series championship, which came last year — developments that Rodriguez said have liberated him, allowing him to enjoy the game more.
He said there was no question his life has changed since 2007, when he was stuck on home run number 499 for nine days.
“Night and day. So much has changed,” Rodriguez told reporters after the 10-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals in which he drove an 0-2 pitch from reliever Robinson Tejeda just over the right field wall in the seventh inning.
“I’m enjoying the game more now than I ever have. … I’m in a much better place now. That stuff (the steroid admission and World Series title) liberated me,” Rodriguez said.
After hitting 599, he had one more chance to hit number 600 in the eighth inning but lined an RBI double to right-center off Blake Wood. From the batter’s box he noticed fans around Yankee Stadium wanting to capture the moment.
“I’m enjoying it. … The fans really got into it. I saw the light bulbs going off,” Rodriguez said.
His pursuit of the milestone is the latest session in the public psychoanalysis of one of the sport’s most gifted and complicated players, one who opposing fans love to boo, whether for his contract, his gossip-page social life, or steroid history.
A-Rod is trying to become the seventh major leaguer to hit 600 home runs and the youngest ever to reach the milestone at 34. He turns 35 on July 27. Babe Ruth was the previous youngest, hitting his 600th at 36 years and 196 days.
Rodriguez, the highest paid player in baseball at $33 million this year, is on pace to catch career home run leader Barry Bonds, who hit 762 from 1986 to 2007 and hit his 600th at age 38.
A-Rod’s home run on Thursday was his 16th of the season.
Rodriguez averaged more than 40 homers a season over his first 14 full years in the big leagues and would reach Bonds in four more seasons at that rate. Even without another home run this year he could match Bonds by averaging about 23 homers a season over the final seven years of his contract.
His 10-year contract — worth at least $275 million but with a series of bonuses paying another $30 million if he passes Bonds — expires after the 2017 season, when he would be 42.
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)