NEW YORK – After all his struggles to hit his 600th home run, Alex Rodriguez reached the milestone with style.
He became the youngest player to attain the mighty mark, driving a pitch into Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in center field exactly three years to the day after his 500th homer.
His two-run, first-inning drive off Toronto's Shaun Marcum put New York ahead, and the Yankees coasted to a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon to end a three-game losing streak.
"It sure has been a while," Rodriguez said, "but it definitely felt good to get a big home run and help us win."
A-Rod reached the milestone after a 12-game drought, connecting with a 2-0 pitch over the middle of the plate for his 17th home run of the season. Because the ball landed in Monument Park, a stadium worker managed to retrieve it 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 of 47,659. 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.
"I just wanted to get a base hit," he said, "and I talked to a few of my teammates yesterday and they just wanted me to go out there and relax and not try to do too much."
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. 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. "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."
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.
Rodriguez received a brief ovation when he came up again in the third inning, then grounded out to shortstop en route to a 1-for-4 day. Jeter had four hits and scored three runs, and Mark Teixeira drove in three runs with an RBI double in the third and a two-run single in the fifth.
Phil Hughes (13-4) allowed one run and four hits in 5 1-3 innings. Marcum (10-5), who had won three straight starts, gave up five runs and eight hits in six innings.
"I'm definitely glad it's over and I definitely enjoyed that moment, enjoyed the win," said Rodriguez, who called it "50-50" when asked how much of home run No. 600 was exhilaration and how much was relief. "We needed to stop the bleeding. That's a good team over there."
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.