Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols, minding his own business at first base, was startled when someone rolled a baseball from the opposing dugout in between innings, clanking off his foot.
Pujols, with a scowl on his face, spun around, and saw the culprit hiding his face, running away hoping to avoid detection.
Yep, who else, but fun-loving Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Pujols, who rarely cracks a smile once he walks onto the field from the Angels’ clubhouse, couldn’t help but laugh. His mind immediately started racing, thinking back to the days they first met when they were teenagers, arriving together in South Florida for the first time as professional players.
My God, Pujols thought to himself, has it really been 18 years?
Pujols, the 402nd player chosen in the June 1999 draft, was in Jupiter, Fla. as a 19-year-old in the St. Louis Cardinals’ instructional league camp. Miguel Cabrera, a 16-year-old who signed for $1.8 million, the largest bonus ever given to an international player, was in the Florida Marlins’ camp.
Cabrera remembers shyly walking over, introducing himself, and being in awe of Pujols’ power. Pujols remembers being in utter disbelief that a hitter could look so mature at such a young age.
Pujols is 37 now, Cabrera 34. Combined, they are slated to amass $750 million in career earnings, a fair bounty for 21 combined All-Star appearances, five MVP awards, five batting titles, 13 Silver Slugger awards, 5,404 hits, 3,411 RBI, 1,046 homers and three World Series titles.
Together, they are nearing – or already immersed in – the game’s ultimate challenge: Fending off the effects of age while maintaining an elite level of performance.
Their bodies may betray them more often now. And both insist they’ll walk away from the game rather than flounder.
All that doesn’t mean their generational skills no longer merit appreciation – even if these best of friends still can’t agree who’s the better hitter.
“He’s the best, the best I’ve ever seen,’’ Cabrera tells USA TODAY Sports. “There’s no one like Albert. I’ve watched him my whole life. Everyone wants to be like him. He’s unbelievable.’’
Counters Pujols: “Don’t let him trick you. Miguel Cabrera is the greatest right-handed hitter in the game. No one has been able to do what he can do. That guy is just unreal.’’
In an era of instant gratification, where first impressions often trump a body of work, we forget we’re watching two of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history.
If they retired tomorrow, they’d be at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in five years. Their names would forever be mentioned in the same breath as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Frank Robinson.
“I think the game right now is not only witnessing two of the greatest hitters of our generation,’’ says likely Hall of Famer Jim Thome, who hit 612 career homers, “but two of the greatest right-handed hitters who have ever lived.
“The message to baseball fans should be to embrace these iconic guys because when they’re done playing, you may never see anything like that again in your life. They’re putting up numbers that will stand the test of time.’’