ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- It was October 17, 2005, and I was crammed into a rickety chair in a lounge inside the Cramer dormitory at the University of Missouri. It was a Monday. Albert Pujols was at bat in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS.
Something was about to happen. Something so stunning I can still remember the smell of the the room in which I watched it happen. We were two pitches away.
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Since leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles, Pujols has faded into baseball’s background. Maybe it’s the late games, or the fact the new King of Swing, his teammate Mike Trout, steals most of the headlines. Once the most fearsome hitter in baseball, Pujols rarely leads the sports section in Los Angeles, much less anywhere else.
But Saturday night, his sweet swing was once again the talk of the sport.
600 home runs. Of all the men who’ve played the game, 18,988 at last check, only nine have reached that tier. Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome and now, Albert Pujols.
Since he entered the league, Pujols seemed destined to join those names. His swing was so effortlessly powerful, his reaction time so fast, his discipline so unwavering, reaching 600 felt less like a chase and more like a march; a traveler arriving at a preset destination.
He was called “The Machine,” because his destruction of pitching was so steady, so thorough, it felt rote.
Six years have passed since St. Louisans saw Pujols play in person with any regularity, so it might be easy to forget how profoundly gifted a player he was.
10-time All Star, three-time MVP, six-time Silver Slugger, winner of a batting title, two Gold Gloves, two World Series rings and a Rookie of the Year tossed in for good measure. Stay with me through the following barrage of stats, because they are worth your time.
He debuted in 2001, and didn’t hit below .300 in a season until 2011 (when he hit .299).
He hit .359 in 2003 and led the league in doubles. He’s driven in at least 100 runs in 13 of his previous 16 seasons, missing it by one in 2011, and five in 2015. In 2013, the third outlier, he was hurt.
Over his first 10 seasons, Pujols led the league in runs scored five different times. He led it in slugging three times, by average once and home runs twice. In 2010 he drove in 118 runs and topped the RBI leader board, a step down from the 135 he drove in the year before.
He was also the league leader in intentional walks four times during that stretch. In 2009 pitchers put him on base purposely 44 times. That is how terrifying Albert Pujols was. Managers just gave him first base, because they were afraid of what he’d take if they left it up to him.
He almost never struck out. After a rookie year in which he struck out 93 times, Pujols has never again struck out more than 76 times in a season. During that 10-year stretch, he had five seasons where that number didn’t reach 60.
Only one player in history, Ted Williams, had more Wins Above Replacement during their first decade in baseball. Pujols was worth 81 wins during his time in St. Louis. Williams was worth 83.
Through his first seven years, Trout has accumulated a WAR of 51. It’s easy to forget now, but Albert Pujols was the closest thing to a perfect hitter many of us have ever seen. He also played Gold Glove defense at a position to which he converted and had double-digit steals three different times.
So when Pujols, now diminished from the monster who had an OPS above 1.000 in eight of his first 10 years, sent home run number 600 over the wall in LA, it was the end of a journey whose only obstacle was time, not distance.
Most memories of his greatness are elusive, like trying to remember a really good dream. But when he connected with an Ervin Santana slider for a grand slam, one moment in time snapped sharply into focus. A different home run. One that didn’t even count toward his 600.
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The Cardinals were losing 4-2 in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 of the NLCS. The first two hitters struck out. At this point, St. Louis’ win expectancy was one percent. That's not an exaggeration. One percent. But if David Eckstein could somehow get on, and if Jim Edmonds blooped one in, Albert Pujols would bat. If he did, anything was possible. Eckstein singled, Edmonds walked. Pujols stood in and took a strike. We were one pitch away.
I came out of that rickety chair with such force it broke into pieces. I rose, aghast; equal parts awed and terrified. The sheer violence of the moment was so arresting. I’d never had fight-or-flight triggered by a television before.
Albert Pujols’ talent was Houston’s Murphy’s Law. When the inning started, there was no chance the Cardinals would win that game. Once he stepped to the plate, there was no chance they would lose it. Such is the willpower of one of the greatest hitters of all time.
Look at closer Brad Lidge.
Look at how diminished he becomes when Pujols connects. His spirit is gone, relegated to some Siberia of the soul. He was never the same after that pitch, never able escape the endless loop of footage, of Joe Buck screaming “A DRAMATIC, TOWERING THREE RUN HOME RUN!” over and over in his mind forever.
Look at the people of Houston, who stare frightened and helpless at the monster who just came to their village.
They are shattered, not just because their team lost, but because in the face of such power, one becomes acutely aware of one’s own mortality.
Pujols is not that guy anymore. When he trotted the bases for homer number 600, observers were joyous. Relieved, even. These moments- joining the 600 club, soon joining the 3,000 hit club- are not momentous, they’re just rewards. They are milestones that mean baseball history won’t be able to forget how great Albert Pujols was, even if some of us did for awhile.