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Nightengale: For Pujols, 700 Home Runs Would Bring Spotlight 600 Didn’t

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Angels first baseman Albert Pujols. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press

Let’s face it: Albert Pujols’ 600th home run didn’t captivate the sports world the way it should have.

Much of the country was asleep when he became the ninth player in history to achieve the feat, and the first to hit a grand slam as his 600th homer, while the rest of America yawned.

Maybe we’ve just gotten immune to these milestones.

After all, only three players had accomplished the feat before 2002: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.

In the last 15 years, six new members have joined the club, the last before Pujols being Jim Thome when he hit No. 600 on Aug. 15, 2011.

We’ve become conditioned to indifference unless it involves someone screaming, ranting and raging or at least being rooted in controversy.

But if Pujols hits his 700th home run, maybe then, and only then, will it jolt our consciousness, knowing that only Barry Bonds, Aaron and Ruth have reached the number in the history of baseball.

Pujols, 37, the Los Angeles Angels DH, breaks into a slow grin, knowing that he has something even greater in mind.

Sure, he might be 37  and slowing down, but as long as his body doesn’t completely break down, he’ll let you in on a secret.

He would love to have the chance to become baseball’s home run king, and if he’s close to Bonds’ record of 762 when his $240 million contract expires after the 2021 season, he’ll keep on going.

“God willing, I hope I get the opportunity,’’ Pujols recently told USA TODAY Sports. “If I’m close, and I’ve played 20 some years already, why not play one more and try to get it?

“It would be so special. I can’t even imagine.’’

Considering that Pujols is the fourth-youngest player to hit 600 home runs and has averaged 29 home runs a season even during five injury-plagued years with the Angels, it’s hardly unimaginable.

Let’s put it this way: Pujols should reach 700 home runs before anyone else again passes the 600 barrier. There are eight active players with more than 300 homers, but only Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers has at least 400.

Pujols hit his 500th homer three years ago. If he has 700 home runs by the time he’s 40, why couldn’t he do it?

“You can’t put nothing past Albert,’’ Angels two-time MVP teammate Mike Trout says.

And once he hits his 700th, with Bonds in his sights, Pujols suddenly would have everyone paying attention, rooting for him to break the record, becoming baseball’s presumably clean home run champion, with no ugly taint of steroid use.

“To be able to accomplish what I have in 17 years, with the time I missed, over 100 games with injuries, it’s pretty special,’’ Pujols says quietly. “If that time comes and I have a chance to accomplish it, I know people will talk about that for a long, long time.

“People ask me when I’ll retire, but as long as I’m still producing in this game, as long as I’m still competing, as long as I’m still having fun, why should I stop?

“The game will tell me when it’s time to stop, but I know I’ve got four more years after this, and then, who knows?’’

Pujols no longer is the same player who averaged 40 homers and 121 RBI for 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he still is a guy who has hit 80 home runs with 256 RBI since the start of the 2015 season. He is second in the American League this season with 42 RBI and has more RBI than anyone else in the league since 2016.

“This guy is probably the toughest ballplayer I’ve ever seen,’’ Angels manager Mike Scioscia says, “being able to go out there and play at 50% and still be extremely productive.’’

Pujols’ consistency separates him from just about everyone else. He has driven in at least 95 runs in every season but 2013, when he only played in 99 games because of a torn foot ligament. He has hit 30 home run in all but two seasons. And never, ever, has he struck out 100 times.

“Right now, people are getting caught up with things in the computer,’’ Pujols says. “Take the knowledge I have for 18 years, you just don’t find in your computer. You can type in whatever numbers you want, but computers are not going to tell you how smart a player you are.

“I don’t care about launch angle and all of that stuff. Who cares if your home run goes 500 feet or 400 feet, as long as it goes over the wall? I consider myself a line-drive hitter with power. I’ve always been that way

“No computer is going to define me.’’

Now that Pujols has reached a place where only eight other men have gone, it will be weeks, maybe even a month, he says, to fully grasp the magnitude of his accomplishment. It was that way three years ago, too, he says, when he hit No. 500. He’ll be able to reflect on the past, and yes, dare to look ahead.

“When that time comes, and it hits me, it will be really emotional,” Pujols says. “I’m being honest with you. I can’t think about it now, but I will. There are other things I’m looking at, too.’’

Yes, like 3,000 hits. And 2,000 RBI. And another World Series title.

Pujols, who has 2,876 hits, passing Ruth last week, and 1,859 RBI, should join Aaron, Ruth and Alex Rodriguez as the only players in history with 600 homers, 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBI. He already is the third player in history to have 600 homers and 600 doubles in a career, along with Aaron and Bonds.

“That’s a pretty special club,’’ Pujols says, laughing. “If you had told me 17 years ago when I was drafted by the Cardinals that I would have had a career like this, I would have laughed at you in the face. What a journey I’ve had.

“And you know what, it’s not over yet.’’

Maybe not even close.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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