Rodriguez sparks debate with 600th home run

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th career home run on Wednesday, becoming the seventh player in Major League Baseball to achieve the feat and triggering new debate about his place among the game's greats after his admission that he has used performance-enhancing drugs.

The New York Yankees third baseman reached the milestone when he sent a two-run homer off Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Shaun Marcum over the center field wall in the first inning at Yankee Stadium.

Rodriguez raised a hand as he rounded first base and was congratulated by team mates. Moments later he stepped out of the Yankees dugout to tip his hat for the applauding crowd.

"Today was a special day," he told reporters. "I've been through a lot the last two years.

"I know a lot of fans are going to have their hesitations on what it means but for me personally, I've played a long time and it is a big number and a special number and I feel very good about it."

It was just the 17th home run this season for Rodriguez, below his normal standards, and came exactly three years to the day after his 500th, but was enough for him to join an exclusive club of baseball's greatest batters.

At 35, Rodriguez became the youngest player to reach 600. The previous record was held by Babe Ruth, who was more than a year older but played in fewer games.

If Rodriguez can continue piling up home runs, he could finish at the top of the list, currently occupied by Barry Bonds with 762.

Hank Aaron is second with 755 followed by Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630) and Sammy Sosa (609) but Rodriguez is the only active player to have hit 600 home runs and still has seven years remaining on his $275 million contract with the Yankees.

"I don't know where he's going to end up," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

"So much of it depends on health as we move forward. But there's still power there -- he showed that power going to dead center.

"As long as he's productive and having fun and enjoying the game, I'm happy for him."

FREE AGENT

Wednesday's homer was Rodriguez's 255th since he joined the Yankees in 2004 after starting his career with the Seattle Mariners in 1994 and moving on to the Texas Rangers as a free agent.

"Congratulations to Alex on this great achievement and on adding another highlight to Yankees history," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement.

"We are especially proud he accomplished this feat as a Yankee and here before the most loyal fans in baseball."

Rodriguez had hit his 599th home run almost two weeks ago but needed 51 trips to the plate to get his 600th as questions about his form started to pop up. But he ended all the speculation with one sweetly struck shot that landed in Monument Park and evaded the packed crowd that had hoped to collect one of the specially marked balls that were given to the pitchers every time he batted.

"I was probably just trying to do a little bit too much," Rodriguez said.

"I had a lot of support from my teammates - they were very patient. The fans here in New York were extremely patient.

"It reminds me of the place I've been the last two years - talk little and try to do the talking with my bat. And the last week and a half or so, I've been doing the exact opposite. I've been talking a lot with the media and doing very little with the bat. So I'm glad that's over."

Despite his achievements, Rodriguez has not always been a popular figure amongst baseball fans since his admission he used steroids while at the Rangers but he was given a generous reception from the Yankees faithful on Wednesday.

"I have found a nice niche, a nice formula for me that's worked out quite well the last two years," Rodriguez said.

"For the most part, everyone checks their ego at the door and you try to win a game every single night. And that's what we've done here the last few years, and it's so much more fun and so much more enjoyable to play baseball like that."

(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Ed Osmond)