It took Albert Pujols 98 home runs before he finally caught hold of one in Dodger Stadium the first time, off a sophomore Dodger import from Japan named Kaz Ishii. Ishii spent four years in the Show before returning to pitch again in the Japanese leagues until age 39. He retired as he began, the walk (almost six per nine innings) being his wounding flaw.
Pujols at age 39 had 656 major league home runs on his resume and would meet and pass Hall of Famer Willie Mays on the all-time bomb list, before his injury-laden decline as an Angel finally finished with a brief but memorable tenure in a Dodger uniform last year. He couldn’t possibly imagine then that his final major league wish, a 700th home run, might come in the Dodgers’ venerable venue.
But the designated hitter, the only slot available to enable Pujols to play major league baseball one more season, finally became universal this year. And the Cardinals, the team with whom Pujols arose, starred, and became a baseball immortal in the first place, were more than willing to bring La Máquina home to try. Not just because they respected what he did, but because they genuinely believed in whatever he had left in the tank.
He wasn’t going to win a National League home run title. There wasn’t that much left of his power stroke. But whatever he had to give, the NL Central leaders would accept gladly. It turned out he had just enough to give until Friday night. Not just some key hits and key big blows, but history. And key stretch drive wins.
Pujols had only six home runs before the All-Star break but thirteen from then until he checked in at the plate the first time Friday night. All of a sudden, it didn’t seem just a dream that he could get to within two freeway exits worth of sight of 700.
The Cardinals couldn’t have scripted this one better if they had Paddy Chayevsky, Budd Schulberg, and Ring Lardner, Jr. collaborating on it.
In the top of a scoreless third, with Tommy Edman aboard on a one-out walk, Pujols fell behind to his lefthanded former Angel teammate Andrew Heaney 1-2 before catching hold of a fastball practically down the pipe and drove it almost to the rear end of the left center field bleachers. Appreciating his effort in his brief time in their team’s silks, the Dodger Stadium crowd exploded.
When the Cardinals put first and second aboard after two quick outs in the top of the next inning, with Pujols about to check in at the plate, Dodger manager Dave Roberts decided not to let Pujols get a second shot at making Heaney’s night any more miserable. Roberts brought righthander Phil Bickford in. With La Máquina sitting one blast from history, the manager wasn’t going to let him have a lefthanded treat.
He was going to make Pujols earn it the hard way. Except that Bickford has a 4.26 fielding-independent pitching rate this year, and Pujols lifetime has been almost as solid against righthanders (.295/.372/.532) as he’s been against lefthanders (.301/.381/.574). On the other hand, Pujols against righthanders this year has looked like the old man he is in baseball terms.
Roberts had to know Pujols’s .209/.297/.384 against the starboard siders made it the safest bet on the planet to bring in a Bickford. When Bickford had Pujols even at 1-1, Roberts could be forgiven if he signed in contentment knowing history wasn’t going to be made on his dollar. Then Bickford threw a third straight slider just a shade down and a shade in.
Pujols may be a living ghost of his old self no matter how much history he chased this year, but he still knows what he’s doing at the plate. The mind and the eye remain intact even if the body might still be hurling obscenities toward him. He swung at Bickford’s gift right as it knocked on his door.
This one only cleared about four rows of the same left center field bleachers. But it didn’t matter how far it traveled, just that it traveled to the right place in the first place. He joined the 700 Club at last. And there wasn’t a teammate, opponent, or fan in the house who’d have denied him his right to spread his wings and grin all the way around the bases.
As he’d done so often during the peak of his Hall of Fame-in-waiting career, Pujols singlehandedly handed the Cardinals a lead, 5-0 if you’re scoring at home, and it turned into an 11-0 demolition of the ogres of the NL West.
The fun continued in the top of the fifth when—abetted by Juan Yepez with one out reaching second on a Max Muncy throwing error across the infield—Dylan Carlson smacked an RBI double, and Lars (Sometimes You Feel Like a) Nootbaar followed Carlson with a two-run homer a third of the way up the right field bleachers.
Yepez thanked the Dodgers for that fifth-inning present with a one-out blast of his own over the left field fence in the seventh, after which Carlson doubled again but Nootbaar had to settle for sending Carlson home with a mere single. Then, come the top of the eighth, Alec Burleson pinch-hitting for Pujols thanked La Máquina for the memories with a leadoff blast off Dodger reliever Hanser Alberto to finish the Cardinals’ demolition.
But this was still Pujols’s night. Lots of former teammates and opponents and watchers have been remembering some of his biggest blasts of the past.
Mike Trout, his longtime Angel teammate and a future Hall of Famer himself, can’t forget how Pujols joined the 600 Club. “The grand slam, when he hit 600,” says Trout.
Just the situation. I mean it was a big spot in the game, and everyone was thinking the same thing. “This is for 600. This is gonna be sick right here.” And then he hit it. He loves the moment. And that’s the thing—people kept asking me, “Hey, do you think he’s going to get it ?” For sure. The way Albert prepares himself—he doesn’t change his approach, doesn’t try to hit a homer. He’s just trying to put a good swing on the ball. That’s big.
Manny Machado was a year away from first wearing an Oriole uniform when he saw his signature Pujols attack: Game Three, 2011 World Series, when Pujols wrecked the Rangers with three homers—all starting in the sixth inning. “That,” the Padres’ gazillion-dollar third baseman says, “was just incredible.”
I mean, he was not missing. You could throw him whatever and he was going to hit it. You could even throw the rosin bag and he was probably going to hit it out. Just that sweet swing. Even all his homers, going back—his first home run. I just admire that swing, how smooth it is, how long it stays in the path. It’s impressive.
Just don’t ask former Astros reliever Brad Lidge. When the Astros were still in the National League and playing the Cardinals for a trip to the 2005 World Series, Lidge got the worst possible taste of Pujols. It only proved to delay the Astros’ sweep out of the Series by that year’s White Sox, but Lidge still can’t forget.
“I made a mistake,” Lidge says now of the hanging ninth-inning slider Pujols demolished so thoroughly that only the roof braces of Minute Maid Park kept the ball from landing in the streets behind the building. “And it wasn’t super-surprising that he didn’t make a mistake.”
With a little help from his Astros pitching staffmate Roy Oswalt, Lidge by then knew that Pujols had evolved into a Ph.D. student of the game and its pitchers. “All of a sudden,” he says, “t started to feel like he knew what you were going to throw before you did. You felt like you had to be perfect . . . He had so much plate coverage, whether you’re throwing a 97 mph fastball or a slider down and away, you had to be perfect.”
“My game plan for him,” says Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, who once threw Professor Pujols a repeat changeup and saw it fly onto Chicago’s Waveland Avenue, “was to give up a single or less.”
But that was then. This is now. The greats normally approach such milestones in decline as it is. Pujols’s injury-smashed decline was a shock long before he rejoined the Cardinals. His Angel tenure started well enough. Then the body regions below his hips began attacking him like fresh meat under attack from the wolves past which he once hit lamb chops almost at will.
None of that matters now. Baseball players don’t always get to make their dreams, never mind their final wishes, come true. The only thing better than the 700 Club for Pujols now would be the Cardinals going all the way to the World Series and coming out with what would be his third lifetime Series ring. Just ask La Máquina himself.
“[D]on’t get me wrong,” he begins. “I know what my place is in this game.”
But since Day One, when I made my debut, it was never about numbers, it was never about chasing numbers. It was always about winning championships and trying to get better in this game. And I had so many people that taught me the right way early in my career, and that’s how I’ve carried myself for 22 years that I’ve been in the big leagues. That’s why I really don’t focus on the numbers. I will one day, but not right now.
“He talks the talk and walks the walk with saying those things,” says his Cardinals teammate Nolan Arenado. “And I really believe him.”
On Friday night, making history with a two-bomb evening, Pujols made believers all over again as he joined the club heretofore populated only by Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron, and Babe Ruth. Even for one night, nobody could take that resurrected belief away.