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8/5/2007  

For now, A-Rod represents hope for a clean homer king

OPINION Martin Frank The moments were striking in their simplicity whenever Alex Rodriguez came to bat for the Yankees. The flashbulbs went off all around Camden Yards last weekend, as if A-Rod were chasing a hallowed record, as if fans wanted to record the moment for posterity. So, I sat there last Saturday night, wondering what all the fuss was about. At the time, Rodriguez was at 499 home runs, and Yankees fans had filled the park, giving the Orioles their third sellout of the season. And they were chanting, yelling, imploring Rodriguez to hit No. 500. Rodriguez finally did it Saturday against the Kansas City Royals, becoming at 32 the youngest player to reach 500 home runs for his career. It quickly dawned on me that Rodriguez signified something more than just fans wanting to witness a 500th home run, which, as we know in this steroids era of baseball, is no longer that big of a deal. Rodriguez represents the hope that someday, perhaps in as few as six years, but most likely seven or eight, he will replace Barry Bonds as the all-time home run king. Bonds was still stuck on 754, one shy of tying Henry Aaron's mark, heading into the Giants' game Saturday night. But it's only a matter of time before he hits two more to overtake Aaron in perhaps the most joyless record chase in sports history. Then, there are the steroids accusations that have hung over Bonds and Bonds' surly personality, which has turned off fans and media alike. But that's not the case -- at least, not now -- with Rodriguez. Just to show how much of an impact steroids have had on home runs in the past decade, consider that A-Rod is the 22nd player to reach 500 homers for his career. Seven of those players have hit their milestone home run since 1999. From 1979 to 1998, just three players hit their 500th home run. So far, there is no suspicion that Rodriguez has used steroids. But that could change this fall, when former slugger and admitted steroids user Jose Canseco releases a book that apparently includes some "other stuff" about Rodriguez. When asked by a Boston radio station if that means steroids, Canseco replied: "Wait and see." Canseco went on to call A-Rod a "hypocrite," and said he is "not all he appeared to be." You can look at Canseco's comments two ways. The first is that he has lied, gotten into legal trouble several times and has a lot of resentment toward Major League Baseball, so he is not very believable. The second is that in his previous book, "Juiced," Canseco named himself, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, among others, as steroids users. Canseco was proven correct on Palmeiro, who tested positive, and seemingly correct on McGwire, based on his lame testimony on the steroids issue before Congress in March 2005. Besides, if Canseco's book was so off-base, why hasn't anyone sued him? For now, then, we are left to hope that A-Rod will surpass Bonds' total. Ken Griffey probably won't get there (he will be 38 in November and has 589 homers). Rodriguez could conceivably get there as soon as 2013 if he averages 40 homers a year for the next six years. It's possible. Rodriguez has hit at least 40 homers in seven of his past nine seasons. It's about to be 8 of 10. So, yes, take A-Rod's picture, celebrate the moment, and hope he can stay healthy enough to keep blasting homers. And hope above all else that he doesn't fall under the cloud of steroids suspicion. If he does, it could be another cold and lonely march to baseball immortality, and we've had enough of that with Bonds.