NEW YORK—Alex Rodriguez can hardly believe he's here. Sitting in a crowded press room in Yankee Stadium on Friday night, the newest member of the 3,000 hit club took a moment to admit that, even in his wildest dreams, he never imagined that any of this was possible—that his career would continue beyond the suspension and injuries that had seemingly put an end to his days on the diamond, and that he could return productive and successful after years of poor performance and off-field controversy.
“A year ago today, I didn’t know if this day would ever come,” Rodriguez said after New York's 7–2 win over the Tigers. “There were days last year where I thought I'd never get that uniform back on and be able to play at this stadium in front of these fans.”
Just hours earlier, Rodriguez had sent those fans into a frenzy with his history-making hit, knocking a solo home run just over the wall in rightfield that made him only the 29th player ever with 3,000 career hits. Fittingly enough, Rodriguez became the first player since former teammate Derek Jeter not only to reach 3,000 hits, but to do so with a home run; Jeter collected his 3,000th hit on a homer to left on July 9, 2011.
As Rodriguez rounded the bases with a gigantic smile plastered on his face, the fans in the Bronx serenaded him with the kind of cheers they once gave Jeter. A standing ovation gave way to a curtain call that gave way to chants, as “Let's go A-Rod!” rang out across the stands. Once equal parts reviled and jeered, Rodriguez has done something that was impossible to imagine before the season: He has transformed from pariah to fan favorite, and from a liability to a key part of this Yankees team.
“It's amazing, it's exciting,” said manager Joe Girardi after the game. “We're all happy for him, and we're pulling for him.”
“It's an emotional thing,” said Adam Warren, the Yankees' starter Friday night. “These are your brothers, and you're excited for them. We're just really happy for him.”
After collecting two hits on Thursday night to put him on the cusp of history, Rodriguez, who told reporters that he barely slept the night before, wasted no time on Friday. Coming to the plate with two outs and nobody on in the first inning, Rodriguez took the first pitch from Tigers starter Justin Verlander and lifted it to right, where it barely snuck over the wall and fell into the hands of 37-year-old fan Zack Hample (apparently for good). The home run was his 13th of the season and the 667th of his 21-year career, the latest blast in what has been an unexpected season of top-flight production.
“I think it would be an awful lot to ask, to play as well as he's played,” Girardi said. “But he never stopped believing in himself. He worked himself back and never said a word, just set about his work.”
“Everything about this year has been a surprise,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve never enjoyed the game as much as I have this year.”
Surprise is putting it mildly. Coming off a year-long suspension for performance enhancing drugs and after several seasons of declining stats and health, it was almost impossible to imagine that the now 40-year-old Rodriguez had anything left to offer the Yankees this year besides a distraction. Instead, he's been a catalyst on offense, helping New York to a 37–30 record, one game back of the Rays in the American League East. On the year, his line is a strong .277/.382/.514 in 262 plate appearances; his .896 OPS is his best mark since 2009, when he hit .286/.402/.532 and bashed 30 home runs. That season also marked the first and only time Rodriguez has won a World Series, a season he still considers the most important of his life.
Rodriguez's 2015 season has no hardware so far, but it has featured him passing milestone after milestone, with history being made seemingly every night: his 661st career home run to pass Willie Mays for fourth all-time, his 2,000th career RBI and now his 3,000th hit. Rodriguez won't have a physical keepsake from Friday night—the fan who caught the home run ball reportedly refused to return it—but he told reporters that what mattered more to him was having his two daughters in the crowd, and getting a hug from Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera after the game, and the reactions from the fans and teammates who saluted and cheered him on this improbable night. “That's what I'll take away,” he said. “I have the memory, and that lives forever.”
The memory will be of a game Rodriguez thought would never happen, a night spent reveling in something good he did on the field instead of having to answer for something wrong he did off it. One year ago, Alex Rodriguez was dead to the baseball world, a man seemingly with no team or supporters, destined to be remembered only as one of the game's most infamous figures. On Friday night, he smiled and joked and laughed, just living and enjoying the latest day of a season neither he nor anyone else could possibly have seen coming.