As the dust begins to settle following Pujols’ slamming his way into the 600 home run of his historic career, it is becoming more and more clear that we will never see a player like him ever again. He is a once in a generation player. More men have walked on the moon than have hit 600 home runs in Major League Baseball. While we are a few days removed from this historic moment, we should take a moment and reflect on how fortunate we have been to have Albert Pujols for all these years.
No one thought José Alberto Pujols Alcántara would ever make it to the big leagues. He wasn’t even supposed to make it off the island of the Dominican Republic. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was not in the picture. He was raised by his grandmother and other family members before his family immigrated to New York City in 1996. Pujols would move to Independence, Missouri several months later. When he played baseball in high school, coaches would intentionally walk him in protest because they believed he was older than 18. He walked 55 times and only had 33 at-bats his senior year. After only one season at Maple Woods Community College, Pujols would enter the 1999 Major League Draft.
Pujols waited….and waited…..and waited until he was finally selected by the St. Louis Cardinals. He was selected in the 13th round, the 402nd pick. Over 400 players were selected before him. He signed for a meager $60,000. The other 29 teams that passed on him would regret not drafting him within 2 years.
In his first full season in the minors he hit .324 with 17 home runs and 84 RBIs at single-A. By the end of the season he was at AAA. It normally takes several years to polish a hitter to prepare them for the big leagues; Pujols rose through the system in one season. And then in 2001, Pujols broke the major league roster. First Baseman Mark McGwire told Cardinals manager Tony La Russa that if Pujols didn’t make the major league roster out of spring training, it would be the biggest mistake in your career. Pujols made his major league debut on April 6, 2001, and–naturally–he came out in style:
What was lost in the magic of his rookie season on the offensive side of the ball was his willingness to play any position necessary to be in the lineup. In his rookie season, Albert played third base, left field, right field, and first base. From there, the legend grew. During his entire career with the Cardinals from 2001 to 2010, Pujols never hit fewer than 32 home runs a season. He hit under .300 only twice during that time. He never played less than 143 games during that stretch. He won Gold Gloves, several MVPs, a Rookie of the Year, and became a World Series Champion. Kids copied his batting stance. He was on the cover of video games. He was a humanitarian raising awareness for Down syndrome. He was and is the model citizen both on and off the field. Then came the 2011 offseason.
Albert Pujols signed a monster 10-year $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, something that was unthinkable for Cardinal fans. He had offers on the table from the Cardinals and the Marlins, but money talks and Albert took his talents to LA. While the impact was felt throughout baseball and a major hole was created in the middle of the Cardinals lineup, Albert made the right decision. If he had stayed, his body would have worn down without the DH and he would have been a shell of his former self; exiting the game in the same way as Todd Helton. Yes, he would have been a Cardinal for life, but he would never have reached the milestones that he has in LA.
Has his average dipped? Yes. Has his power wained? Yes. Age is catching up to him, as it does to all of us. The ballpark in Anaheim is larger than the confines of Busch Stadium. He is human after all. He has been playing through pain in his right foot. Even though he isn’t the player he was in St. Louis, he still has had two 30 home run season and a 40 home run season during his time in an Angels uniform. He is the model player of endurance. Now, at 37 years old, he is the 9th member of the 600 home run club. His contract runs through 2022. While he still has 5 years left on that deal, it is important to reflect on his Hall of Fame career (make no mistake; he will get in on his first attempt). Every milestone home run, RBI, and hit along the way makes us pause. Where were we when it happened? How many wiffle ball games did I play where I emulated that batting stance? He has changed the game for the better.
We need to stand up and give a round of applause to this man for his on and off the field accomplishments. We don’t realize how special a player is until they retire. We’ve seen Derek Jeter and David Oritz retire the last few years. Many of us didn’t start reflecting until their final seasons, and then it was over. When you watch Albert play, every time he comes to the plate, think about how great of a player he is. Love him or hate him, we are watching one of the last complete hitters of our generation. Don’t start reflecting when it is too late. Start now. Appreciate that you are witnessing something we will never see again. Thank you, Albert.