Glory Days

Albert Pujols, A Behemoth at Bat

The sports fan has a capricious mind. Even Albert Pujols, an all-time great deserving of admiration, has been abused by the kind of fickle sensationalism which prevails in our bite-size news culture. He’s greedy, injury-riddled, a burden to his organisation. He is done. So say the volatile bunch who view baseball through the hyper-critical scope of Twitter. Today, it only takes a mobile phone and an obnoxious turn-of-phrase to become a moralist, an expert, a definitive authority passing judgement on decisions and character. In the case of Pujols, signing a ten-year, $254m deal with the Angels made him an ideal target. A poor start to the 2012 season, though rectified in the second half, was compounded by an injury-shortened 2013. Now, despite nearly 500 home runs and a record which ranks amongst the most stellar in recent history, it’s chic to bash Albert Pujols. I’m here to tell you that is wrong. He is one of the greatest.

The case against Albert Pujols typically centres around his age and points to a poor 2013 season as definitive proof of his fall from grace. Pujols missed the final two months of 2013 with a damaged left foot. He also played whilst hobbled by knee issues. In just 99 games, he batted a measly .258 with 17 home runs, 64 RBI and a .330 OBP. Naturally, this wasn’t the godly Albert Pujols I watched as a child. However, I didn’t suddenly begin lambasting him like many fans. It’s important to view the performance and legacy of a player in the context of an entire career and, in the time I’ve been an avid follower of baseball, there have been very few as consistently sublime as Albert Pujols. He deserves better and, for that reason, I’m rooting for him to make a sensational comeback in 2014.

When I began watching late-night games here in Britain, the Cardinals featured regularly on the ESPN feed carried by Channel 5. Therefore, we saw a lot of Pujols during his prime. I always remember the incredible sense that he was going to do something every time at bat. He was an assured genius at work, potent and majestic at the plate. He would settle in as Busch Stadium became awash with red noise and a palpable expectation. An unmistakable stance would be assumed, with feet spread wide and knees daring to touch like two poles of a magnet. Pujols would peer out to the mound behind steamy eyes yearning to form a scowl. A smile would wrinkle slightly across his lips. He would grind the huge bat above his head with a rigid precision, awaiting the delivery of some superstar pitcher about to be blasted into the throes of humiliation. Pujols’ head would be tilted almost towards the stars, a portrait of baseball royalty. He was a behemoth at bat.

An explosive power hitter, Pujols was consistently awesome. Albert never entered the gruesome 50-home run range of more chemically-enhanced peers. No, his was a natural level of relentless performance. The Dominican first baseman has played thirteen years in the big leagues, with St Louis and LA, during which time he has averaged 41 home runs, 124 RBI and a .321 average. A haul of two World Series rings, three NL MVP Awards, and nine All-Star selections has consolidated Pujols’ place in the very highest echelon of modern day performers. In 2001, he was National League Rookie of the Year. He has twelve seasons with more than thirty home runs. Albert has won a batting title and led the league in home runs twice. In 2014, he will join Ernie Banks, Ted Williams and other assorted immortals in the 500 home run club. The man is a hero.

During his extensive career, Pujols has come closer than almost any player to striking an ideal equipoise between clinical slugger and technical scholar at the plate. In this regard, perhaps only Miguel Cabrera and Manny Ramirez have managed a similar balance consistently and with such ease. You see, Albert Pujols can beat you in a number of ways. He could launch a long home run into the dead of night; he could drive a double to the gap with runners on second and third and your closer looking to nail down a one-run victory in the ninth; he could draw a crucial walk; he could stroke a sharp single up the middle with startling precision; he could dig an important throw out of the dirt at first. Aside from stealing a bag, there is no end to the capabilities of Albert Pujols.

In a round-about way, this has always been the case. Even from humble beginnings in Santo Domingo, Albert always found a way of getting things done. In the Dominican, Albert would practice his baseball skills by using limes instead of baseballs and an empty milk carton as a rudimentary mitt. He had to battle the constraints of finance and living with an alcoholic father during childhood, yet ventured to America with family in 1996 intent on making his way in the professional game.

The Pujols family first settled in New York City but, when Albert witnessed a shooting at a nearby grocery store, plans were made to move on. Eventually, Albert entered the arena of organised baseball at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Missouri. Such was his obvious prowess, many opposing coaches questioned Pujols’ age and instructed the imposing figure to be walked intentionally. Nonetheless, when Albert was presented with a pitch to hit, he would pounce; one scholastic home run rattling around a distant air-conditioning unit some 450 feet from home plate. Despite the suspicions over his age, and distinctly because of his prodigious performance, Pujols was twice named an All-Star athlete before graduation in 1998.

A scholarship from Maple Woods Community College in Kansas arrived, affording Pujols the chance to take a further step towards his baseball dream. In his debut game, playing shortstop, Albert not only punched a Grand Slam over the outfield fence, but also completed an unassisted triple play. He gained a reputation as something of an unknown quantity, with questions about his age and lengthy swing often overshadowing the raw potential in evidence. A freshman campaign which included 22 home runs and a .461 average convinced Pujols to declare for the MLB Draft.

Yet few teams were convinced by him. The Red Sox and Rays done plenty of due diligence and even discussed drafting the bulky slugger. Nonetheless, suspicions about his age and eventual position knocked Pujols down the pecking order for many executives. St Louis selected Pujols in the thirteen round. However, he wasn’t overly enamoured with their offer of a measly $10,000 bonus, electing instead to play collegiate summer ball for the Hays Larks. When Pujols set about destroying the Larks’ record book in only a short stay, Cardinals executives were dispatched with a new offer: $60,000. Albert signed.

He quickly tore through the minor leagues. A season at Single-A Peoria as a third baseman demonstrated that Pujols was closer to a finished product than many had initially anticipated. He was named Midwest League MVP before being thrown into the fire of a Triple-A championship race. After three regular season games with Memphis, Pujols proved to be a difference-maker in the playoffs; his .367 batting average steering the Redbirds to a first-ever Pacific Coast League title. Pujols was granted postseason MVP honours.

An invitation to Spring Training in 2001 was the only opportunity Pujols needed. He impressed so much that legendary manager Tony La Russa never would get round to cutting him. At the age of twenty-one, Pujols’ journey from poor Dominican roots to Major League regular was complete. The next chapter would be equally reminiscent of a fairytale.

Albert Pujols is the only player in Major League history to hit .300 with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI in the first six seasons of a career. That is how much he impacted the Cardinals. Pujols unleashed one of the greatest rookie seasons in the annals; a .329 average combined with 37 home runs, 47 doubles and an astounding 130 RBI earning Rookie of the Year honours and insuring that aging third baseman Bobby Bonilla had no job upon returning from injury.

Pujols moved around the diamond, spending time in the outfield before settling-in at first base. Soon, the nucleus around which Walt Jocketty would build a consistent winner was ushered into place. Pujols would be protected by Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, with pesky leadoff hitter David Eckstein often scampering home as the physical embodiment of Albert’s RBI total. The Cardinals advanced to the World Series in 2004, but the Red Sox had Curse-breaking destiny on their side. It was in this increasingly- comfortable and familiar environment, however, that Pujols began creating his profile as a consistent superstar. He wrapped 212 hits en route to a batting title in 2003, and rattled-off four straight seasons of at least 40 homers between 2003-2006.

Which is when I first encountered Albert Pujols. Not personally, you understand, but on television and in video games, books and online highlights. During the four or five years whereby my interest in, and knowledge of, baseball soared to ever more devoted levels, Pujols evolved into the most feared, most accomplished and frankly greatest hitter on the planet. He rarely received the hyperbole afforded Manny or A-Rod or Papi, but Pujols arguably sustained a purer level of play for a longer period than all those players. He had a mysterious and exotic aura about him, like that of a revered philosopher who suspects over-exposure may ruin his impact. I was fascinated.

A few specific memories of Albert Pujols are pertinent in my mind. I vividly recall his shattering home run off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. The Houston Astros were within one out of competing in a first World Series. The tying runs were on base and the closer was in. Pujols was the calmest man in a gyrating Minute Maid Park. An 0-1 pitch from Lidge was absolutely pulverized by Pujols, whose rapid swing produced one of the most resounding connections of bat on ball I’ve ever seen. Almost immediately, a funereal shock paralyzed Houston, with thousands of screaming denizens punched in the gut whilst watching this most astounding drive come to rest on the train tracks. It was a mammoth home run. I was eleven years of age, and it was perhaps the first real moment of extreme brilliance I had ever witnessed in a baseball game.

It’s still strange to comprehend the state of utter trauma which that Pujols home run created. In my colourful mind, it still punctured the hopes of Houston, sent St Louis to the World Series and led Brad Lidge to a destitute life of drugs and self-loathing. In reality, Houston came back and won Game 7 behind a stellar Roy Oswalt, advanced to the World Series, and Lidge went on to lead a happy life in Philadelphia. That is how earth-shattering Pujols’ blast seemed at the moment and in memory. It provided a Shakespearean finality which, realistically, is inaccurate.

I will never forget that home run.

A World Series victory in 2006 erased the bad memories of ’04 and further solidified Pujols’ standing as the global king of baseball. In the remaining years of his St Louis stay, Albert ascended to incredible levels of admiration. He earned a deep and poetic respect which eclipsed the legacy of Mark McGwire. In this regard, Pujols also acted as a pure and believable superhero to many fans; during an era awash with cumbersome juicers named Giambi, Sheffield and Bonds, Pujols remained as a pristine icon.

By the time Pujols added a second World Series ring in 2011, his standing as baseball’s greatest active player had long been acknowledged. However, the stirring performances which he produced in the clutch during that unlikely championship run felt like a crowning gift, a definitive contribution, a final act. He put on an exhibition of his talents as if specifically for the archaeological benefit of a new baseball generation. Albert became just the third player, behind Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, to club three home runs in one World Series game. It was pure exhilaration, a stock in which Pujols has traded his entire career.

Thus, time and eras move on. Albert signed a lucrative contract with Los Angeles and endured a slow start. Nonetheless, he recovered to defy the many doubters and produce his usual 30 home runs and 105 RBI. A reasonable case can be fought that Pujols would have even reached similar levels in 2013, save for injury. Therefore, I find the increased character assassination more than a little premature and profoundly disrespectful. It’s important that we respect the true legends of this game, because they will be gone before we know it, leaving only memories.

I will never forget the excitement of watching Albert Pujols as a child. I will take every available opportunity to watch him play in 2014 and beyond. Why? Well, because he is a hero, and heroes endure even as contracts expire and eras change. So, I implore you to take a more considered view, unimpeded by franchise allegiances and the overzealous irony of our modern day. Appreciate Albert, because you’ll miss his kind when they’re gone.

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