Monday, June 5, 2017

Pujols Hits a Grand No. 600

By Jeff Kallman

Once upon a time, Jose Alberto Pujols Alcantara became baseball's first player to join the 500 home run club by hitting numbers 499 and 500 on the same night. Saturday night, he became the only one to join the 600-home run club with a grand slam at the expense of a former teammate.

"I'm not the only one [to surrender a homer to Pujols], you know," Ervin Santana kidded after the game. "I'm No. 9 right now on the 600 club. He's very nice and very humble. He always worked hard, and you can tell. He's 'The Machine'."

In the bottom of the fourth, with the Angels already working on a 3-1 lead, The Machine faced Santana, his Angels teammate in 2012, and against whom he'd only hit one big fly in previous meetings. Pujols stood 1-2 against Santana with two outs and ducks on the pond, and Santana — who'd gotten those two strikes by way of sleek four-seam fastballs — went for a back door slider.

Except that it came in through the front door. And Prince Albert, ever the gracious host, drove it parabolically past the left field foul pole to land six rows into the seats, four days after he'd hit number 599 but began pressing a little more than normal.

Pujols wanted nothing more than to hit the milestone mash before the home crowd at Angel Stadium, and it showed. He flailed, waved, golfed, jerked, and hammered, and came up empty too often for his liking, and now the Angels were two days from a road trip. Credit his wife, Dierdre, with a big assist.

After he walked and struck out looking his first two trips to the plate Saturday, Pujols got an unexpected surprise — his wife texted him mid-game. She simply told her husband to stay back in the box. "I just stayed back," he said with a laugh after the game. "I'm glad that I listen to her once in awhile."

The bomb was caught by a young fan named Scott Steffel, by day a graphics designer in Costa Mesa, California. He brought his glove to the game, as he had since Pujols hit number 599 Wednesday. When the ball arrived at his seat, Steffel snapped his glove around it with no intention whatsoever of trying to turn a fast profit on it.

"All I wanted to do was hand Albert his ball," Steffel told reporters after the Angels finished what they started, a 7-2 win against the Twins. "He deserves it. It's his big moment. I just happened to be the guy to catch it."

Pujols's life as an Angel after so many years shining for the Cardinals has been anything but angelic. He started his Angels years in 2012 with a six-week spell of nothing going over the fence. In 2013, the root of his problem became exposed publicly: he'd developed plantar fasciitis in his heel. It took him down for the final two months of '13 and led to continuous problems in the lower half of his body since.

Once (and still) the greatest first baseman ever to play the game, Pujols has been reduced to little more than a designated hitter who can still hit them out and drive in runs when there are men on base ahead of him, but who can barely run the bases when he reaches base.

His ebullience was always tempered by humility — he was famous in St. Louis for refusing the designation El Hombre. "There is one man that gets that respect, and that's Stan Musial," Pujols told a reporter three years before Musial died. "I know El Hombre is The Man in Spanish. But he is The Man."

But Pujols has also showed the strain of a man who could once perform surrealistically but was now grateful for every hit, every run sent home, every home run, possibly in the fear that each one might be the last one no matter how long his Angels contract has to go.

As a Cardinal, his work was usually a conversation piece, none more so than the blast he nearly hit out of Minute Maid Park in the 2004 National League Championship Series, on Brad Lidge's dollar; or the three bombs he hit in Game Three of the 2011 World Series — all after the sixth inning.

Even at less than his peak form or presences in Angels silks, Pujols has had the occasional knack for a thrill. In an interleague contest with the Nationals, in Washington, opening a set that was supposed to be about Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper, about the two best all-around players in the game young or old, Pujols rudely stole their thunder — on a night the pair went a combined 2-for-8 with no runs batted in — by hitting numbers 499 and 500.

"To have almost 18,000 players wear a big league uniform, and to have only 26 players do this, it's pretty special," Pujols said after that night in 2014. His awareness of baseball history is equaled only by his own contributions to it.

Nothing of the pain and frustrations in his Angels seasons erases that, as a Cardinal, he became the only man in baseball history to hit .300 or better, hit 30 or more home runs, and drive in 100 or more runs in each of his first ten seasons.

When it comes to integrity, Pujols has it with enough extra to pass around. When one-time Cardinal bombardier Jack Clark accused him of using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, Pujols didn't fall back on the customary rejoinders of no failed drug tests and other such comebacks — he hit Clark with a lawsuit, prompting Jack the Ripper to retract his comments entirely a few months later. (Pujols, in turn, dropped the suit.)

A man who rejects being given Stan Musial's nickname out of respect and who'd sue rather than just let a loose lip sink his ship with a misfired bullet is a man who isn't going to take his latest milestone as merely his due, no matter what manner of extraterrestrial play he'd performed in a storied enough past.

Dwell not on whether the Angels were foolish to sign a then-32 year old first baseman to ten years and $240 million without quite realizing he was about to begin being reduced into an imitation of his formerly formidable self thanks to his heels and, by extension, his lower body.

Forget for the moment that the Angels reached only one postseason with him. So he's averaged "only" 29 homers a year as an Angel? You don't need me to tell you you could name a score of players for whom 29 bombs in one year would be a career year.

And try not to fall into the might-have-been trap if you can. He might have left it behind in St. Louis and it wasn't his own idea to have done so, but there's no might-have-been for Pujols. He's done his best as an Angel with what he's been left to work with, he's shown up, he's played through the kind of pain that would have sent lesser men to retirement.

"I think the biggest thing that Albert probably doesn't get credit for is how often he's playing through something-a sore hamstring, a bad ankle, something," says Angels closer Huston Street, himself on the disabled list this season courtesy of a strained lat. "Let's be clear: he's next-level tough. There are a lot of guys who would not be able to play, and a lot of that is how he's put up the numbers he's been able to put up."

I've written that playing through pain doesn't do your team any favors. Pujols doesn't need to be told that. And he's not even close to being the only reason the Angels haven't been world beaters since before he came aboard.

If there's such a thing as a reward for a man willing himself to continue hitting through the kind of pain that turns mere mortals to memories, Pujols earned one by delivering one. There wasn't an Angel fan in the house Saturday who wouldn't have handed him the milestone mash on a plate if they could have.

After the game, Scott Steffel merely handed it to him.

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