DETROIT -- Mark McGwire remembered feeling awestruck by a young Albert Pujols in the spring of 2001, telling Tony La Russa that if he didn't put Pujols on the Opening Day roster "he might just be making one of the biggest mistakes of his career."
Mike Trout -- only 22 years old, of course -- recalled picking Pujols every time he played Home Run Derby on Xbox, because Pujols "could hit some homers, for sure."
David Freese, a diehard Cardinals fan growing up, told the story of how he banged his head against the roof of his Mobile, Ala., apartment when Pujols took Astros pitcher Brad Lidge deep in Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series.
Joey Votto thought back to the final day of the 2008 regular season in St. Louis, when Pujols -- on his way to the second of three NL Most Valuable Player Awards -- hit a third-inning double and was pulled by La Russa so Pujols could exit to a standing ovation. The Reds' first baseman called it "the perfect move by the perfect manager for the perfect player in the perfect situation in the perfect city in a perfect year."
La Russa himself has a whole different perspective.
Asked what jumps out to him most about his former lynchpin, now on the doorstep of 500 career home runs, the Hall of Fame manager and current Major League Baseball executive recalls all those 0-for-4 days when Pujols was on the top step cheering for his teammates or when he would sacrifice himself to move a runner over while chasing a batting title. To La Russa, the Cardinals' skipper from 1996 to 2011, those moments captured the essence of Pujols, because "from the first time he got to the Major Leagues until right now, he has been the consummate competitor, teammate."
"I say that," La Russa cautioned, "and I don't think enough people will understand."
So he tries again.
"He plays like the old days. You know, when your values were simple. You played as hard as you could for your team, you took pride in what the team did and then you got fame and fortune. Guys are so distracted now. Albert has never been distracted and has been tempted to many, many times, because he's had a great, great career."
Pujols has hit four home runs in his first 15 games this season, and he enters the Angels' nine-game, three-city road trip that starts Friday just four more away from being the 26th player in baseball history to amass 500 homers. That last part is worth repeating: Pujols will soon be one of 26 players, among the 17,992 who have ever played this game, to perform baseball's most thrilling act that many times. That's 0.014 percent.
Good luck getting him to open up about it, though.
|Player||No. of homers||Date of 500th|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||630||6/20/2004|
"My focus is on helping this team win," said Pujols, who recently surpassed 1,500 RBIs. "I'm going to have plenty of time, hopefully after I retire, to look at everything I've accomplished in this game. Right now, my goal is to try to win championships and hopefully stay healthy."
Pujols' chase for 500 hasn't captured many headlines, because 10 of the current 25 reached it within the last 15 years, because widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs has somewhat tainted the milestone and because his won't come with the franchise he hit his first 445 with.
Minus an off-the-cuff radio rant from Jack Clark, Pujols has never been linked to PEDs. And throughout the game, few are more respected.
"He is the baddest [man] in my book," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said, though he chose a different description.
"He's the best hitter I've ever seen, live and competed against," Votto added. "Barry [Bonds] was the best I've ever seen in my life. Albert was the best I've ever played against, and it's not even close. Strength, quickness, flat-bat path -- he always backspun the ball. He didn't have huge power, but he hit the ball perfectly."
McGwire's last season as a player coincided with Pujols' first, "and I knew then that he'd hit 500 home runs," the current Dodgers hitting coach said. "No question. He was so short to the ball, strong hands, he was just so good. Solid lower half. He just doesn't have a lot of moving parts."
Pujols, the first player to hit 400 homers in his first 10 seasons, has homered off 315 pitchers in 36 different ballparks and against 29 of the 30 teams (St. Louis being the lone exception). He hit six home runs in the 2004 playoffs, setting a then-Cardinals record, and he belted three of them in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series against Texas.
If Pujols hits 30 homers this year -- he's never had fewer in a full season -- he'll finish 18th on the all-time list with 522, jumping ahead of Eddie Murray, Gary Sheffield, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Willie McCovey and Frank Thomas along the way.
Of the 25 who have hit 500 homers, 16 are in the Hall of Fame. The nine others -- Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, McGwire, Sheffield and Bonds -- are either not yet eligible or tied to performance-enhancing substances.
"He is one of the best right-handed bats in the game to ever play," Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder said of Pujols, his longtime NL Central competitor. "He's had an amazing career, a great first baseman, one of the all-time best."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pujols' chase is that he isn't defined by the home run. He's a two-time Gold Glover (2006, '10), sports a career .321 batting average, has never struck out 100 times in a season, has posted a .330/.439/.607 slash line in the playoffs and he's one of the smartest, most instinctual players in the game.
"You're dealing with a guy who rarely swung at balls out of the zone, didn't seemingly present himself as a guesser, so he wasn't a guy you could just beat on a 2-2 fastball in because he was looking away," said D-backs starter Bronson Arroyo, who has faced Pujols 92 times (77 at-bats). "He would jerk my fastball 500 feet foul, even though he hadn't seen one inside in two series."
Pujols is the only player in history to begin his career with 10 straight seasons of at least a .300 batting average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs, and he fell one batting-average point and one RBI short of doing it in an 11th straight season in 2011 -- a year that saw him return from a devastating left wrist injury in two weeks, even though he was supposed to be out at least a full month.
"His legacy is already established," Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo said, calling 500 homers "just another milestone of many still to come."
But then there's this:
"He doesn't allow himself to enjoy much in this game, because he's always pushing," Cardinals skipper and former Pujols teammate Mike Matheny said. "He's always got his sights set so high."
Pujols' chase of 500 coincides with his quest to prove himself all over again, strange as that may sound, because his career has taken a drastically different turn since he signed that 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels in December 2011.
There was that month-and-a-half-long homerless slump in 2012, a year that nonetheless finished with a solid .285/.343/.516 slash line. And there was a 2013 season in which he was a shell of himself, dealing with an aggressive case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, a perpetually swollen right knee and no lower half as he notched by far the lowest OPS of his career (.767) and didn't play past July.
Now he's healthy, with almost eight full years remaining on his contract, and the world wonders who Pujols still is, what he will be moving forward.
"If he's healthy, he can do whatever he wants," Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera said. "He's one of the best I've ever seen. The thing is, he's got a lot of players that can help him -- Trout, when [Josh] Hamilton's back. There's a lot of good players around him."
La Russa cites Pujols' unmatched work ethic and uncommon discipline in saying that "if his health cooperates, he'll live up to the great, productive standards that he has set over his first 11 years." Freese brings up the fact that Pujols plays first base in a league that allows a designated hitter, awes at his approach in batting practice and comes to the conclusion that Pujols "will hit until he's 80 years old."
"I look for him, when it's all set and done, to be one of those handful of players that people are just in awe of," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Albert's certainly aware of what he's accomplished, but he's not fixated on it. Albert wants to win baseball games, and I think that's why he's had such a great career and will continue to be very productive."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. MLB.com reporters Jason Beck, Ian Browne, Steve Gilbert, Ken Gurnick, Jenifer Langosch, Mark Sheldon and T.R. Sullivan contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.