Typically, when great athletes enter the twilight of their careers, fans grow nostalgic. Any frustration over their declining skills gives way to displays of gratitude for past heroics. Writers fondly reminisced about Eli Manning when he announced his retirement at the end of the last NFL season, even if the consensus take on his play was less than flattering. Even opposing teams will pay tribute to old rivals, as NBA teams did for the late Kobe Bryant during his 2016 farewell tour. And when the players inch near or past historic records, TV networks often deploy countdown clocks and are constantly ready to jump into the live action so they don't miss the moment.
It's time Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols got that treatment.
If baseball fans were polled about the best active player in the Major Leagues, Pujols' teammate Mike Trout would, deservedly, win in a landslide. But change best to greatest. In that case, the distinction still belongs to Pujols.
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It's been a long time since Pujols was great, so this may seem like a difficult case to make, but it's really pretty simple. For nearly the entirety of his first 11 seasons in the big leagues, from 2001 to 2011, Pujols was unequivocally the best player on the planet. Playing for the St. Louis Cardinals during that span, the right-handed first baseman won the Rookie of the Year Award, three National League MVPs (he finished in the top 5 of MVP voting 10 times), two Gold Gloves, and two World Series titles, while hitting .328/.420/.617 with 445 home runs.
To put it into context, compare the first 1,200 or so games of Pujols' career with the first 1,200 or so Trout's, both of which are remarkable. Trout is slashing .305/.418/.583 so far, with 293 homers and 252 doubles. Pujols, at roughly the same point, hit .334/.425/.624 with 319 homers and 342 doubles. He also had walked more than he struck out, and struck out less than half as many times Trout has.
This is far from a knock on Trout, who has a chance, should he stay healthy, to finish his career as one of, if not the, best to ever play. He's already a Hall of Famer. And, by virtue of playing center field, Trout is probably a more valuable player than Pujols during that timeframe, even if his mentor has a slight edge offensively. Instead, the comparison is to show just how much it seems the peak of Albert Pujols' career is taken for granted.
Pujols' greatness also wasn't confined to statistics. His presence in the batter's box was otherworldly, his mythos enhanced by his stoicism, a trait that's no longer in vogue in today's game. The go-ahead, ninth-inning home run he hit off Houston closer Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS would read like a Ruthian tall-tale if there wasn't video evidence. Joe Posnanski has written for The Athletic about Pujols' penchant for promising children he'd homer for them and then following through. And consider the fact that he played one minor league season in 2000, which consisted almost entirely of A-ball, plus a quick 21 games at high-A and 15 plate appearances at AAA. The next year, he broke camp with the Cardinals and wound up hitting .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBI en route to his first piece of hardware.
The second half of Pujols' career is a different story. He's remained a pretty steady run producer since signing with the Angels before the 2012 season, but the rest of his game has vanished due to age and nagging injuries. He still has good instincts on the base paths, but is very slow, and while still sure-handed at first base, he's no longer the defender he once was. At the plate, he walks way less than he used to, strikes out more, and frequently hits into double plays. That all resulted in his becoming one of the least valuable players in the league in recent years, at least in terms of Wins Above Replacement. Subsequently, he's largely lost his place in the conversation around the game, which has steered toward Trout or even younger stars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto. With his contract expiring next year, the chances of Pujols playing beyond 2021 are slim.
Over the last several years, a few surefire Hall of Famers have hung up their spikes — most recently Adrian Beltre and Ichiro Suzuki, and, going back to 2014, Derek Jeter. Their declines weren't as precipitous or as prolonged as Pujols' (Beltre never even really declined), though that's in part because they were never as good as Pujols in the first place. Either way, they were celebrated widely across the league and were very much a part of the collective consciousness of the baseball world. Pujols remains a well-respected player and teammate, who will undoubtedly secure a place in Cooperstown his first time on the ballot, but fans don't seem to give him the recognition that Jeter and Ichiro garnered. Ultimately, his reputation has morphed into one of a one-dimensional, overpaid veteran who can still turn some fly balls into runs. While older fans have seemingly forgotten his greatness, younger ones probably don't even realize it existed, at least not to the level of recognition it deserves.
Hopefully the real narrative of Pujols' extraordinary career resurfaces when he eventually ties and surpasses the legendary Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Pujols is sitting at 659 home runs, one shy of Mays, so the moment will come soon. It's not getting much attention in the sports world yet, however, even though it's been quite some time since anyone has reached this mark. The last two men to do it, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, tarnished their already-great careers with steroid usage by the time they got there.
Think about that. Albert Pujols is the first clean player (while we may never know for sure, there is no credible evidence linking Pujols to performance enhancing drugs) to hit this many home runs since ... Henry Aaron. And yet nobody is really batting an eye. There are a few reasons for that. For starters, there are no fans in the stadiums, which obviously takes some energy out of the pursuit. But Jeff Miller made two other arguments in 2017, when Pujols was nearing 600 dingers, that still hold up in 2020. First, home runs are now ubiquitous, sapping the long ball of its mysticism. Second, Pujols became a legend in St. Louis, not Anaheim. He has never really had any signature moments with the Angels who have mostly underachieved since he's been there. From an outsider's perspective, it seems Angels fans have embraced his leadership skills and work ethic, but he doesn't appear to be a beloved figure like he was for Cardinals fans, who, presumably, would be much more invested in this moment had he never left.
But it's important to remember Pujols' career means so much more than his home run total. For a generation of baseball fans, including me, he was the best we ever saw, and no one was close. And while I envy young baseball fans whose first introduction to greatness in the game is Trout, it's worth taking the time during this strange season to point out his older, beleaguered teammate, and let them know, though they might realize it, they had the fortune of watching one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived.
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