Albert Pujols joins the 700 circuits club in a provocative final season
The end of the baseball days is coming with more cruelty than kindness.
Babe Ruth quit in May 1935 with a .181 ERA and a feud with the owner of his Boston Braves.
Ken Griffey Jr. was hitting .184 without home runs in June 2010 when he abruptly left the Mariners on his way home to Florida, leaving only a prepared statement of retirement.
Mike Schmidt was hitting .203 in 1989 when he quit while the Phillies were in San Diego. When asked what he would miss most about baseball, the great third baseman quipped, “Room service fries.”
Gravity rules. Such is the commonality of falls from grace that the sight of Albert Pujols grinning broadly — his new playing face these days — while circling the bases after hitting career homer number 700 Friday night at Dodger Stadium was the happy image of the challenge. Pujols defied time and age, not to mention the normal downward arc of his career, with one of the most spectacular outings the baseball gods have ever allowed.
Pujols had 699 and 700 home runs Dodgers pitchers Andrew Heaney and Phil Bickford, respectively, pitched 454 and 455 in his home run book with his record number of entries. He joined Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only players to reach 700. The way he got there was most amazing of all. Turning back the clock a decade, Pujols’ assault on 700 over the past four months will go down as one of the great mic drops in gaming history.
On July 5, Pujols hit .189 in his role as a part-time player and full-time clubhouse influencer in what was little more than a victory lap season with his Cardinals. Since then, Pujols has been the biggest hitter in the game this side of Aaron Judge, with a slash line of .321/.382/.685. (His slugging percentage was .411.) His average exit speed increased from 89.3 to 92.6.
On September 10, he hit a home run off pirate the right-hander JT Brubaker like no other he had hit since 2015 in terms of the force (111 mph) and distance (418) he covered.
Friday night’s homers pushed his season totals to 21 home runs and a .530 hitting percentage. Only six other players hit 20 home runs and hit .500 in their final season: Bonds, Ruth, David Ortiz, Kirby Puckett, Will Clark and Dave Nilsson. At 42 years and 251 days, Pujols is older than all in their last season with the exception of Bonds (43.064).
When I asked manager and longtime friend of Pujols, Oliver Marmol, how Pujols could transform his season to such a degree, Marmol mentioned three reasons: 1) he got closer to the plate, inviting the ball more close to his body to generate more Power; 2) he was inspired by the outpouring of love and respect his peers showed him at the All-Star Game; 3) He’s glad to know it’s his last season, no matter what, including whether he’s hit 700 or not.
Sandy Koufax knew before the 1966 season that it would be his last playing year, but didn’t tell anyone. Instead, he viewed each game, each stadium and each day as unique, knowing he would never go through that again. Pujols, previously and famous for his playing face, has let the passing days of his career be his inspiration, not his fear.
Bickford, his former teammate with the Dodgers, remarked after giving up the scoring home run, “He’s the nicest guy in the world. It’s a big teddy bear.
“I’m not chasing anything,” Pujols said earlier this week, when people wondered if the march to 700 was carrying him and if he would really quit the game if he fell below 700.
When Pujols is inducted into the Hall of Fame five years from now, it will be his prolific career, and not just the surprise of his final three months, that will be most impressed. Just as Ortiz was celebrated as one of the game’s historic clutch hitters, and not just his 38 home runs and .620 hitting percentage in his senior year, Pujols will be enshrined as one of the greatest hitters. right-handers of all time. He changed the game with his swing, sending current and big-league players into batting cages and videotaped study sessions to try and replicate that fast, flat stroke and non-kicking power. Pujols was a line hitter who hit 700 home runs, but never hit 50 in a season, like Aaron. He was a typing student from an early age in the Dominican Republic.
“Since I was little, I have been able to go to the stadium and the Estadia Quiscaya and watch Julio Cesar Franco play, Raul Mondesi, Sammy Sosa… Winter ball and their practices,” Pujols told me. “Because I used to arrive quite early. I had the opportunity to work at the stadium with my father-in-law – he had a little shop there selling sandwiches, coke and beer – so I was able to have the opportunity to go there early after school and watch them take BP.
The swing evolved over the years, but it started out trying to hit like Franco, staying inside the ball. Pujols grew up competing against kids two to four years older than him, which he told me led many people to question his age.
“That’s why people, when I came here to the United States for high school and college, didn’t believe my age,” he told me, “because I was able to mature so early that I was able to learn from the mistakes that I was making at the age of 13 and 14, playing with guys who were 15, 16 and 17. So I was able to catch those mistakes that I was making and play with them saying, ‘OK, I don’t want to make that mistake. I want to be better.
“It’s something that has helped me in my career. When I arrived in the United States, it was incredible. In high school, it was almost like playing with kids, pretty much. Everything came easily. I can understand people thinking I was older because I was playing with those guys in the Dominican Republic. When I was 16, I was tearing up the high school dance.
To get to 700, Pujols hit 500 homers on right-handed pitchers and 200 on left-handed pitchers. Hit hit an incredible 218 homers with two hits, the most hitting since 1988 (Manny Ramirez is next at 192). So much about his career will be defined by never compromising the yin and yang of hitting between power and contact. There was no give in to his taking. Pujols batted 93 times as a rookie — and never batted that many times, even though baseball has had a record number of strikeouts year after year.
After hitting 700, Pujols slipped into a tunnel behind the visitors’ dugout at Dodger Stadium and cried.
“Why?” he said, surrounded by his family during his post-match press conference. “Because of this, my beautiful family. After the Lord is who I play for. They have been through this journey and through the ups and downs, through the screams, the pain and the hurts and knowing that they have my back. The fact that they are part of this story means everything to me.
Like Ortiz, Pujols will also be among the most respected players of his generation. His peers not only admired that classic old school swing, but also his love of the game, his attention to detail. For so many years in its heyday, Pujols was the model of the great strike. For the last three months of his career, Pujols has summoned a return to such greatness. It’s the kind of exit from the scene that baseball almost never allows. Pujols leaves the game as he entered: the drill line circles around the pitch and over the fence, only now with a smile on his face.
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