On April 22, barely a week ago, against the Washington Nationals, Albert Pujols, the 34-year-old first baseman for the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, became the 26th player in the history of Major League Baseball to hit 500 career home runs.
Pujols did it in grand fashion, too, hitting a pair of bombs (#499 and #500) off Nats’ right-hander Taylor Jordan, helping his team to a 7-2 interleague win.
But, more than anything else, it seems that Pujols’ march to 500 was clouded over by a national buzz of “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” (Yeah, that’s irony, Ms. Morrissette.) It seems a bit silly of the mass baseball media to write about how quiet Pujols’ march to such a milestone was, while they could’ve contributed to the coverage themselves.
Regardless of that, those talking heads were right: Pujols’ milestone accomplishment was barely talked about, barely celebrated, and, in the days leading up to it, covered with all of the grandeur and hoopla of someone in New York City hailing a taxi. Which is to say, not at all.
So, why is this? What are we to think of the relative silence for the latest in “Phat Albert”’s long line of accomplishments?
There are three likely reasons for the general lack of discussion leading to Pujols’ 500th. In no particular order, these are: his injury-riddled 2013, his decision after the 2011 season to sign with the L.A. Angels rather than stick with the St. Louis Cardinals, and the cloud of suspicions that has jaded the public view of home runs.
Pujols’ plantar fasciitis, a debilitating foot injury, helped contribute to the worst two seasons of his career (2012-2013) and caused many, in the (inaccurate) words of Mark Twain, to greatly exaggerate the rumors of (his) demise. After a decade of being arguably The Best In The World (at What He Does), Pujols declined a bit in 2012, the first year of his 10-year pact the Angels. He hit .285/.343/.516, the worst slash line of his entire career. He also had a career-low 30 homers, but did smack 50 doubles for the third time and played in 154 games for the ninth time in 12 seasons.
Still, that was viewed more as an adaptation to a new league and new ballpark, rather than any sort of precipitous decline for the right-handed masher. But, the expectations in Anaheim were very high that season, and the team’s failure to make the postseason (89-73, 3rd place in the AL West) put a brighter spotlight on Pujols than he’d ever had to deal with in St. Louis, where he helped the team win two World Series rings, and a slew of postseason berths. It seemed that where Albert went, greatness followed.
However, in signing with Anaheim and eschewing the team he had just led to a 2011 World Series title over the Texas Rangers, Pujols became a villain. Someone we could boo. Why? Because he took the money over everything else. His turncoat actions by signing with L.A. were seen not just as a sin against the city of St. Louis (A “Cardinal sin” perhaps? …. I’ll show myself out…) but rather a sin against baseball and heroes. The Angels became Yankees West, and Pujols was their A-Rod.
So, rather than celebrate Pujols in his new environs, we chose to turn on him. Some more than others, sure, but it was now clear: the man known as El Hombre, the greatest ballplayer in the “greatest baseball town” with the “greatest fans in the world” was gone. In his place: a remorseless, lying, cheating, “don’t-believe-in-heroes-anymore” lump of dollar bills and empty promises. He was flawed. He was human. He was one of us. And, frankly, as sports fans, we hate that. Athletes in this culture are gods, larger than life and bigger than big. We had wanted so badly for Albert to get 500 …
… Until he took the money and ran. Then it became just another greedy, hulking, age-denying, steroid-injector cashing his fat paychecks for playing a kids’ game.
It only got worse the following year, as the Angels (read: owner Arte Moreno) decided that the team needed another massive contract in order to really compete with the Texas Rangers and the well-known financial juggernaut in Oakland. And so the Angels brought in Josh Hamilton with a 5-year, $125 million contract, hoping that those two sluggers, along with superstar-in-the-making Mike Trout, would spread out the spotlight a bit, so that no one superstar would be blinded in its glare.
While the intentions made sense, the Hamilton deal really only made things worse. The team known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim faded into the background in favor of its two new superstars. Two is better than one, right? Well, that was the plan, but we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men (and Moreno).
Hamilton and Pujols both battled injuries and ineffectiveness, with both putting up their worst full seasons*. Hamilton was undone by nagging minor injuries mostly, while Pujols finally succumbed to the plantar fasciitis that had hampered him all of 2013 and caused him to play in just 99 games, easily a career-worst. Other career-worsts accompanied that total: .258/.330/.437 with just 17 home runs, among other subpar marks.
*Hamilton did manage to play in 151 games last year, but hit just .250/.307/.432, all career worsts.
So, entering this season, the spotlight shone on Pujols wasn’t one of achievement, but rather one that begged the questions: “Is he done?” “Is Pujols finished?” “Can he come back?”
Media, fans, and virtually everyone involved in baseball seemed to be giving a eulogy rather than looking at the fact that Pujols’ plantar fasciitis was corrected with surgery and, while entering his age-34 season, Pujols could still be an offensive force, as demonstrated in his 2012 stats, and thus far this year, with Albert batting 399/.358/.639 with a league-best nine home runs*.
*Stats through Saturday, April 26, 2014.
But, everyone loves a comeback story, right? So, rather than recognize that Pujols could easily come back from his surgery and be the same player he was his first year in Anaheim, everyone seemed to choose constant questioning of his condition, his frame of mind, and his ability to overcome. Because it makes a better story.
For better or for worse.