This past week, watching Albert Pujols chase 3,000 career hits has been one of the most bittersweet memories I have as a baseball fan.
Pujols quietly reached that milestone Friday night in Seattle, becoming just the fourth player in Major League Baseball history with both 3,000 hits and 600 home runs.
The only other three are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.
Pujols achieved the feat on a sinking liner into right field in the fifth inning off former Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake, during his third plate appearance of the game — a contest that didn’t start until 9 p.m. central time. That would have put the time of the hit around 11 p.m. central time. Many fans on the East Coast and in the Midwest had probably already gone to bed by the time Pujols became just the 32nd player in history to get to the magic number 3,000.
Pujols could still potentially get to another milestone this season — 2,000 career runs batted in. Prior to Tuesday’s game, he still needs 62 more RBI to get there.
Before the downfall of the steroids era, 3,000 hits was a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame. So was 500 home runs. It’s not so simple any more.
However, Pujols is undoubtedly a shoo-in for the hall despite getting his first few years of MLB service time when players like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa were still putting up their gaudy juiced power numbers.
For 11 years, Pujols was the predominant hitter in St. Louis and a perennial candidate for Most Valuable Player in the National League.
Had it not been for sharing a league with Bonds at the height of his home run rampage, Pujols would have had at least a couple more MVP awards to go with the ones he received in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Pujols finished second to Bonds in the 2002 and 2003 voting.
Right from the start, it was evident Pujols was a star. He debuted in 2001 and immediately began his pursuit of claiming rarified statistical significance.
For 10 straight seasons to begin his career, Pujols was a lock for at least a .300 batting average, at least 30 home runs and at least 100 runs batted in.
He was also nearly certain to score at least 100 runs each year, though he fell just short of that mark with 99 in 2007.
He nearly pulled off those numbers for his entire 11-year career with the Cardinals. In the 2011 season, his last hoorah before signing a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels, he fell just short of .300, batting .299, and fell one RBI short of 100 at 99.
Had it not been for Stan Musial coming before, Pujols would have been known outright as “The Man” in St. Louis. As it was, they referred to him as “El Hombre” instead.
Since his departure, it’s been hard for Cardinals fans to feel bitter as we enjoyed a continued run of playoff success that has only come to an end in the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Pujols has seen a steady statistical decline in his six-plus seasons with the Angels.
His batting average has declined down into the .240s. His power numbers have been a roller coaster with more than 30 home runs in 2012, 2015 and 2016, but just 17 in 2013 and only 23 last year.
Pujols was an All-star nine times with the Cardinals and it is an indictment of those who picked the 2002 and 2011 teams that he wasn’t an All-star in those years as well. However, he’s been selected to play in the summer classic just once during his six full seasons with the Angels.
All of Pujols’ major awards came with the Cardinals — his three MVPs, Rookie of the Year, six Silver Sluggers, two Gold Gloves, the 2003 National League Batting Title and most importantly his two World Series Championship rings.
Thus, it’s admittedly been hard to watch him hit both his 500th and 600th career home runs out on the West Coast and now 3,000 hits as well. It’s even harder to take that he’s done it in front of a group of fans that never saw him at his best and so understandably cannot appreciate the achievement with the same full hearts that those of us who saw him play virtually every night for more than a decade would have if he were still wearing the birds on the bat.
Pujols’ achievements just won’t matter to that fan base the same way it will when Mike Trout, their own star to come through their own farm system and play all of his career games with their team, does it. That’s assuming Trout never gives them a bitter pill to swallow by going to another team in free agency before he reaches those milestones.
With the arrival of Shohei Ohtani this season, Pujols isn’t even the second-biggest star on his own team any more. Now he’s situated firmly in third behind both Trout and Ohtani.
Despite the disappointment that Pujols hasn’t completed these statistical achievements for the team and fans who undoubtedly loved him best, it’s still satisfying to at last see them reached after knowing all the way back in the early years that he would get there some day.
Congratulations, “El Hombre.” See you in St. Louis when the Angels come to visit next year.