- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

At the end of last season, Alex Rodriguez’s name was mud — or whatever the word is for “mud” in Spanish. (My Espagnol-speaking sons say, “Lodo!”) For two months, July and August, he couldn’t hit the broad side of David Wells, then he pulled yet another disappearing act in the playoffs.

But suddenly Rodriguez is baseball’s last best hope — its best hope, that is, of keeping this from turning into a Barry Bonds Summer. Watching tainted Barry slowly, inexorably, grinningly chop down Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record is more than most of us can bear. (Though not, obviously, soulless ESPN, which treats each of his dingers as a world-changing event.)

Anyway, it’s time to get behind A-Rod, time to root, root, root for him to hit 74 homers this season — and to pray even harder that he eventually breaks Bonds’ career mark. That’s the only way we can make Barry go away (not that a fraud of this scope can ever be totally erased).

How sweet would it be if, as Bonds was closing in Hammerin’ Hank, most fans were preoccupied with the otherworldly exploits of the Yankees’ love him/hate him third baseman? How fitting would it be if Barry’s single-season home run record was eclipsed the very same year he burglarized Aaron?

(Of course, knowing No. 25, he’d try to turn it to his advantage. “See?” he’d say. “Seventy-three wasn’t so preposterous.”)

What A-Rod has done in the Yankees’ first 19 games gives us at least a glimmer of optimism. To recap:

• He has launched 14 homers, tying Albert Pujols’ record for April with four games left (last night’s game was rained out).

• He has hit a homer in more than half of the Yankees’ games (11 of 19).

• At his current pace, he’ll end up with 119, obliterating Bonds’ record by 43.

OK, so maybe he won’t stay that hot. Maybe he’ll only hit 112. (After all, if he hit 119 — under the klieg lights of New York — his hair would probably start falling out like Roger Maris’ did. First the hair on his head, then the hair on his arms, then the hair on his legs, then the hair on his … toes.)

But, hey, anything’s possible in baseball. Just ask Ted Lilly, a .500 pitcher who was just handed a $10 million-a-year deal by the Cubs. Better still, ask Bonds, who only had one 40-homer season before he turned 32.

It’s the all-time record that’s the Great White Whale, though. What are Rodriguez’s chances of one day owning that mark? Well, it depends on how long Barry overstays his welcome. Let’s say he hangs around long enough to hit 800; A-Rod would then need 323 more to top him.

Sounds like a lot, sure, but keep in mind: Alex (478) has 180 more homers than Barry (298) did at this stage (31 years, nine months). That gives him a substantial cushion should his performance begin to taper off because of (a.) age or (b.) a worldwide shortage of flaxseed oil.

Perhaps Rodriguez’s biggest challenge as he heads deeper into his 30s is staying off the DL. He has averaged 597 at bats a year since becoming a full-timer in 1996, and it would greatly help his cause if he continued to average 597 at bats a year — or something close to it. Clearly, he has plenty left in the tank; he’s already leapfrogged Dave Winfield, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Stan Musial and Willie Stargell on the home run list this season, and by October he could pass Frank Thomas, Lou Gehrig, Fred McGriff, Eddie Murray, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams and Willie McCovey (521), which would move him up to the 15th spot.

According to my calculations, if A-Rod keeps averaging 597 at bats a year — and keeps hitting homers at his career rate (one every 14.320083 at bats) — he’ll blast No. 801 sometime in September 2014 … about the same time Bonds is having cranial-reduction surgery on “Dr. 90210.” (He’ll do it, moreover, at the age of 40, three years younger than Barry is now.)

Another thing that might slow Rodriguez’ pursuit of Bonds is if opponents start giving him the Barry Treatment — and refuse to pitch to him in all too many situations. But that’s harder to do when a hitter is surrounded by the sluggers A-Rod is. Which is why, should he opt out of his contract after this season, he needs make sure he signs with a strong offensive club — lest he be denied too many ups.

Most fans figure Rodriguez can’t keep it up, can’t keep knocking the ball out of the park like this for another five months. To which I reply: “What kind of attitude is that? A-Rod simply must keep it up. The alternative is too painful to contemplate.”

When he does break Bonds’ record(s), I’ll be the first to raise a glass. I might even say, “Here’s lodo in your eye” — if I can remember the Spanish word for “mud.”

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