Here's a news bulletin: the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez entered the weekend within three home runs of 600 for his career.
Ernie Banks has insisted he has no contempt for modern day players such as Rodriguez who took steroids and broke the records of the “clean” players of previous eras. Rodriguez hit 52 homers for the Texas Rangers in 2001, breaking Banks’ major league mark of 47 homers in 1958 as the most home runs ever hit by a shortstop. Rodriguez admitted last year that he had been taking performance-enhancing steroids during that period.
The magnanimous Banks insists A-Rod is a good guy.
“They invited me to come down there to (Arlington) Texas, and that’s my hometown (Dallas),” said Banks of the experience of seeing his record broken in 2001. “I was with A-Rod, went by his house, had lunch with him. I met (A-Rod’s agent) Scott Boras, went to the ballpark with him, went to the batting cage and watched him hit. He was very nice and I like him.
“Then at the All-Star game, I went to the locker room and chatted with him a little bit. He was showing me how to hit, and to hit to right field. He knows a lot about hitting. These (steroid) guys, although this stuff happened, I think they could have done it without any assistance. And they were very smart. They know how to hit the ball. They understood the game.”
Of course Banks was down-playing his ability to hit. He swatted 512 home runs, many of them when he was a 6-1, 170-pound shortstop making much less than $100,000 a year. He also had 2,583 hits.
“When A-Rod broke my record, I was with him and I was pulling for him. I knew he had a lot of ability,” said Banks. “I didn’t think about the money he was making ($252 million over 10 years)…it was the highest salary of anybody in baseball.
“I was down there when the kid from Texas- Rafael Palmeiro (also a steroid user)- hit his 500th home run. He hit it the night that I was there,” said Banks. “I am saying this with love. I just care a lot of about them. I have seen them, I have met them, I have talked to them. I met a lot of them on the golf courses and I share their feelings. A lot of them have played in World Series and I didn’t, so I was kind of like the small child on the block with them.”
Banks said he and Hall of Fame teammate Billy Williams played the game with the intention of trying to help their Chicago Cubs team win in whatever way possible, not necessarily by concentrating on hitting home runs.
“I now see that the home run is the greatest marketing tool,” said Banks. “Not a no-hitter or a one-hitter. The home run was it. The home run became the biggest ticket there is. I am amazed that I hit (512) home runs. This has become a big issue now.
“I came up from the Kansas City Monarchs (of the Negro League), where I didn’t hit many home runs,” said Banks. “Then when I came into the majors (in ’53), I didn’t think about hitting home runs. But Monte Irvin and Ralph Kiner and Hank Sauer…they were hitting home runs. I was a skinny little kid and nobody thought I could hit home runs. I was surprised, too. I hit 19 home runs in ’54. Every time I hit a home run I was really surprised. But when I saw Wrigley Field, I said: ‘Wow, this is a nice place to play.’”