By Bob Nightengale |
This is the one.
This is the hit that meant the most to Albert Pujols.
In a Hall of Fame career where Pujols has won three MVP awards and two World Series championships, it was Friday night’s achievement that meant more to him than every individual accolade.
Pujols joined the illustrious 3,000-hit club Friday night, becoming only the fourth player in baseball history to hit 600 homers and collect 3,000 hits in a career.
“Getting 3,000 hits mean the most as far as individual numbers,’’ Pujols tells USA TODAY Sports, “more than the home runs, more than anything, But I’ll tell you that 2,000 RBI is pretty close. That’s pretty special.’’
Indeed, by the end of the season, Pujols and Hank Aaron should be the only players in history to have at least 3,000 hits, 2,000 RBI and 600 homers.
Yet, for this glorious night, Pujols still achieved a feat that only 31 players have accomplished before him, and only three ever demonstrated that kind of power, with 1,262 of his hits going for extra-bases.
It was an evening worth celebrating throughout all of baseball.
Yet, it was an event only a precious few paid any mind.
The baseball world talked about Ichiro Suzuki joining the Seattle Mariners front office, Mookie Betts’ stunning home run surge and the Atlanta Braves’ ascension to first place in the NL East, but it was as if Pujols’ feat was an afterthought.
Do we really have that short of an attention span?
“All I know,’’ Pujols says, “is that it means everything to me. It means you were a complete hitter. That’s all I wanted to be, and to help my team win.’’
It doesn’t matter that Pujols, who joined Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez as the only members of the 3,000-hit, 600-homer club, is in decline. It shouldn’t make a difference that Mike Trout is the biggest star of this team, Shohei Ohtani is the biggest show, or that the Angels finally are in a division race.
This evening belonged to Pujols, and baseball should forever savor it.
We’re watching one of the greatest hitters of all time, and it would be a shame if he’s not appreciated while still in uniform, with 3 ½ years remaining on his 10-year, $240 million contract.
“I think I’ll have plenty of time at the end of my career to look back to see where I am regarding numbers.
“But I’ll be honest, getting to 3,000 hits, that’s pretty special.’’
Pujols and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers will be known as the two greatest right-handed hitters of our generation, but with Pujols three years older, and the only one who has won World Series titles, he’ll be the one more accomplished.
“He’s the best, the best I’ve ever seen,’’ Cabrera told 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.’’
Pujols stopped being in the conversation as the best in the game the moment he left St. Louis after the 2011 season. Those days of winning three MVP awards and hitting .328 and averaging 40 homers, 121 RBI with a .420 on-base percentage and .617 slugging percentage as he did for 11 years in St. Louis, are over.
In his six years with the Angels, he’s hitting .261 an averaging 28 homers, 98 RBI and a .317 on-base percentage and .458 slugging percentage.
Still, should it matter now?
Can we still cherish Pujols’ entire body of work, and not mock the declining years of an aging star?
After all, even the greatest hitters of all time have never overcome Father Time.
“The one thing about Albert is he’s not looking back,’’ Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters Thursday, “and saying, “I did this. I did that. His nickname, “The Machine,’’ is not just for his hitting proficiency. It’s like his will to play. He comes out here every day and wants to help his team win a game.
“There is an incredible makeup you need to be that good for that long. He’s obviously an exceptional talent. You combine it with all the intangibles, and you see why he’s in rarefied air for what he’s accomplished.
“Four guys, in all the careers in baseball of great, great players, to do what he’s doing, I think says it all.’’
Pujols’ greatest years, of course, were in St. Louis, but he likely will go into the Hall of Fame wearing no cap out of respect to Angels owner Arte Moreno. Besides, once he’s done playing, he has a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract.
For now, let’s enjoy one of the greatest hitters we will ever see.
“If you would have told me 17 years ago when I was drafted by the Cardinals that I would have a career like this,’’ Pujols says, “I would have laughed at you. God is good. It’s been a blessing.’’