4/22/2014 8:47 P.M. ET
Pujols continues to be a man among men
Joining 500-homer club an achievement that was years in the making
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The Machine is a man now. But moments like this remind you of what he once was. And what he still can be.
With a sweet swing of the bat off Nationals pitcher Taylor Jordan in the fifth inning on Tuesday, Albert Pujols became the 26th member of the vaunted 500-homer club and just the eighth to reach that mark by the age of 34. So this seems as good a time as any to stop fretting about the financials and simply stand in awe at the totality of Pujols' achievements.
It's been 13 years since he first took the Major League Baseball world by storm and surprise. There was, remember, no reasonable forecast that could have foreseen what has undoubtedly become a Hall of Fame career. Even by the standards of 2001, when our prospect awareness was merely a shadow of what it is today and the league-wide offensive explosion was still in full boom, Pujols' quick ascension and easy adaptation to the big league stage was a marvel. He had a .329/.403/.610 slash line that rookie season.
The league had never really seen anything like him.
"What this kid has done," Tony La Russa said in 2001, "is the greatest performance of any position player I've ever seen."
Pujols had come from Maple Woods Community College via the Dominican Republic. He was in the Royals' backyard, and they didn't draft him. Twice.
But don't feel too bad, Royals fans. All of baseball passed on Pujols post-high school, and the Cards only took him out of JUCO in the 13th round in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft.
Though he had played all of three games above the Class A level, Pujols' Spring Training showing in 2001 was so revelatory that La Russa had no choice but to keep him on the Opening Day roster, not knowing if he'd make it past the first series, let alone the entire season. But in the fourth game of the year at Chase Field, Pujols ripped three hits in five at-bats, including his first home run -- a fourth-inning, two-run shot off the mustachioed Armando Reynoso. He had two more hits the next day and two more in the series finale, including a double he smoked off the center-field wall against some guy named Randy Johnson.
That's when the Cards really knew they had something.
That's when the baseball world, at large, got its first real taste of The Machine.
Over the course of the next decade, Pujols would seize Barry Bonds' title as the best player in baseball, winning three National League MVP Awards. He compiled a .328 average, a 1.037 OPS and 1,479 runs created. He drove in 1,329 runs and smacked 455 doubles. He was intentionally walked 251 times.
And yes, he hit his first 445 homers.
(For context's sake, that's 30 percent of the Royals total team homer output in that 11-season span.)
All of those numbers, by the way, were the highest for any hitter who played each of those 11 years. But you probably could have guessed that.
What you probably could not have guessed was how quickly The Machine would morph into man in his time in Anaheim.
Oh, sure, that final season with the Cards in 2011 was seen as a statistical step back, but only slightly, and a Texas-sized power display on the World Series stage had a way of diminishing any talk of decline. The Angels signed him to a 10-year, $240 million contract that was pretty much universally seen as a risk among risks, but only for the back-end impact to the bottom line, not the front.
Even if you assumed Pujols would be a different player in his early 30s, the degree to which Pujols' body betrayed him in his first two seasons with the Halos and the statistical slide that accompanied his move to the American League (his ballpark-adjusted weighted runs created mark was just 124 in those first two seasons after a career-long track of 167) was stunning.
That's the unfortunate aspect of the gargantuan contract -- one Miguel Cabrera is sure to face in the not-too-distant future. The contract clouds any analysis of or appreciation for what Pujols is still accomplishing in this second half of his career, because it's paying him for his past and not his present.
Present-day Pujols, though, can still provide the power, and we've seen that much more frequently this season. The knee and foot woes that compromised his lower body and wrecked his strength are gone, and Pujols has finally been able to dig in again, to get back in the flow of fielding his position on a consistent basis and, yes, to provide welcomed proof that a 34-year-old Pujols is still very much a viable middle-of-the-order bat.
"I don't need to prove anything to anybody," he said recently. "This isn't about me. This is about our ballclub. If it were about me, I wouldn't have two World Series rings. … I don't want to take any focus off our ballclub this year and try to put it on me, because I don't think it's fair to this organization or our team. My goal is to stay healthy and do whatever I can to help this organization win."
As far as personal numbers go, 500 puts Pujols in a sparsely populated club of fellow sluggers. Membership increased exponentially in the so-called steroid era, and perhaps that's had the effect of watering down some people's appreciation for the achievement, just as Pujols' gaudy salary has a way of skewing any analysis of his output.
But let this moment serve both as a celebration of a uniquely transcendent period of productivity Pujols enjoyed from 2001-11 and as a present-day positive for a player reclaiming his old swing and swagger.
The Machine was amazing.
The man is still quite good.