For Albert Pujols, there’s nothing left to prove

Opening Day 2001

A behemoth of a man steps inside the batters box. His mass is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. Rockies’ ace Mike Hampton does a double take at this new hitter, as stoic as ever; someone he’s confident he’s figured out since besting him in the previous two at-bats. Up until now, most consider this kid with tree trunks for arms a myth of player. Even before taking his very first big league pitch, his God-like reputation precedes him as if he has nothing to prove.

Nearing the last gasp of his own career, it was teammate Mark McGwire who urged manager Tony La Russa to promote the kid for fear of making the biggest managerial mistake of his own career. Any doubts of bringing the 21-year-old up too soon quickly became an after thought on this day.

Behind on the count, the kid rips an 0-2 pitch through the infield for his first career hit. He trots to first, in his top-heavy manner and plants himself proudly on the bag, taking on fist bump from first base coach Dave McKay. That would end up being his only hit of the day, but even there  in Coors Field, everyone knew that was the first of many hits to come for Albert Pujols.

Opening Day 2018

Pujols is not the same person he once was nearly two decades ago.  He’s still a big guy, but the allure of him has long vanished. He now wears a Angles uniform that sits more baggy than his once form-fitting Cardinals one from forever ago, that made him appear as if he were a superhero in cleats. The bat speed has decelerated, and he sees increased days off nowadays. There is some resemblance to the 2001 McGwire in the twilight of his career.

No longer does the Pujols name fill the seats it used to though. The team’s marketing strategies have gradually shifted towards Mike Trout and more recently another myth of a player, Shohei Ohtani. He’s already being proclaimed as the next coming of Babe Ruth and even Ichiro.

Sitting deep in the shadows of the dugout, Pujols watches Ohtani slap Oakland pitcher Kendall Graverman’s fastball through the infield for his very own first career hit in the second inning.

Four innings later,  Pujols pulls one out off Graveman too, marking his 615th home run of his career, hit number 2,969.  Unlike the fresh-faced Ohtani, Pujols is on a different level. At 38, he has been there, done that and has seen just about everything the league has to offer during his impressive 18-year career.  What remains are records. Setting them and breaking them, specifically. He’s chasing ghosts now. With greats it always comes down to that near the end.

May 5th of this year, Pujols would join the 3,000 hit club, putting him back in the lime light again, if only for a short time.  Currently, he’s on pace to surpass Ichiro’s 3,089 career hits by year’s end.

On July 12th, he surpassed Ken Griffey Jr. on the all-time home run list, and now sits at 632, looking ahead to Willie Mays (660) next. Hard to say Pujols will ever get there. Since 2015 his season totals have also steadily declined. While he doesn’t play with the same intensity, there’s still some left in the tank.  His RBI totals have taken the biggest dive recently, and to think he’s within spitting distance of surpassing Lou Gehrig’s 1,995 and Barry Bonds 1,996 RBIs. A 19th season will most likely be in his future.

See, there truly has never been a player quite like Pujols, especially in his prime years.  At one time, he was on pace to shatter the record books before injuries and a move to Los Angeles from the Cardinals disrupted legendary stride. There’s nothing left to prove. Albeit any big scandals, Pujols will become a first ballot Hall of Famer.

For the last few years there’s been great debate among the media, whether Pujols should hang them up or not. He’s on pace to keep   But some see his presence in the lineup as hurting, not helping, the Angels’ shot at contending or even rebuilding.  He’s just not the same player he once was.

He leaves more runners on now than he ever has and his career-leading 372 GDP is a record that is certainly untouchable. With Trout’s current contract expiring soon, the Angels’ focus is predominately on him. Pujols isn’t a priority anymore, nor should he be.  They can try to turn a blind eye but the Angels are sort of stuck with him.

On the flip side of that, Pujols isn’t exactly in a position to move on to go ring chasing, either, like many other greats in recent decades.  No one wants that contract.  After this year he’s still owed $87 million of his 10 year $240 million deal he signed back in 2012.  It’s a player-happy contract with zero wiggle room. Aside from his brow-raising annual salary, it’s complete with a full no-trade clause and bonuses galore, that were set in place for breaking said records mentioned as well as various accolades won.

Could we see a 42-year-old Pujols still taking his hacks in an Angels uniform?  Probably not. In the end, though, whenever that is, there’s truly nothing left for him to play for but his lasting legacy.

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