On August 4th, 2010, almost 7 years ago, Alex Rodriguez took Shaun Marcum deep at Yankee Stadium for his 600th home run, 3 years to the day of his 500th round tripper. The Yankee third baseman was 35-years old, making him the youngest player to ever reach the small, but powerful handful of men who have hit 600 home runs. It was his 2,633 hit of his career. It was a moment, something you can only see a handful of times.
This Saturday, another name joined the select few to have hit 600 home runs. Albert Pujols, at the age of 37, crushed a pitch from Ervin Santana over the left field wall for a Grand Slam. The ballpark seemed empty, the game held no weight, and the fanfare was minimal.
That’s a goddamn shame.
What Albert Pujols did on Saturday is something only the greats can do. Hitting 600 home runs is not easy, in fact, I’d venture to say it’s pretty damn hard to do. So why has there been relatively no celebration? Why does this not matter?
Buster Olney had an idea.
“I think it is because the number has been diminished by all the players who have reached it, really, in the last 15 years. If you think about it, for decades, the 600-home run club included three people: Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. And year after year after year it was those three guys. Then in 2002, Barry Bonds became the fourth and five others have joined since then. And so I think it got watered down. Certainly the fact that some of the players who have joined the 600-home run club since — Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds — have been linked to steroids, I think have hurt that number as well. And everybody who has joined that club now, it is not as exclusive as it once was.”
I think Buster is right… for the most part. With players like A-Rod, Sosa, and Bonds in the 600 club, it has lost its luster. No longer is it revered legends like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, we’ve got some questionable individuals in there. That surely is a dark mark on the legacy of the 600 Home Run Club.
But I beg to differ on the “watered down” part of his comments. I don’t think Sosa and Bonds did that. In fact, I believe we did. We’re responsible for letting that happen.
Look, I wrote a whole article a while back about steroid use in baseball, to find it you can click below.
Take a look, because this will be a brief synopsis. We used to have a huge steroid problem in baseball. We still have a steroid issue, but what we have is a perceived stigma about the players in the steroid era. Mike Piazza, the best home run hitting catcher of all time, was not a first ballot Hall of Famer due to some steroid speculation. SPECULATION. When asked about it during his 2016 Hall of Fame Media call, he was again asked about it. Even after he was in the Hall, there were still questions.
The year before Piazza got in Bill Madden of the New York Daily News had this to say:
“They said he did steroids. It was a number of players — in their opinion, or whatever … Bottom line is, there were players in the major leagues who played against him — I can’t remember if there was anybody who played with him — and it was more than just one or two that definitively said, in their opinion, he did steroids. These players weren’t saying this about anybody else. So, I mean, I always had my doubts about Piazza, even though there was no positive testing and he wasn’t listed in the Mitchell Report. And my feeling was, I’m gonna withhold my vote, and I’ll give you a reason for that — the classic example being Alex Rodriguez. Here was a guy that told everybody he never did steroids, and then he confesses to the feds that he did do steroids his entire career.”
Read that again. “They said he did it, these guys said it although there is no proof, it’s their opinion so it’s also mine, and because of that, he doesn’t get in. He could be lying. A-Rod.” That’s a terrible mentality to have about players. There’s no benefit of the doubt given to players who were clean and played through the steroid era.
That’s where Pujols comes in. The 2001 Rookie of the Year broke onto the scene in a big way, by crushing 37 homers and hitting .329 in his first year in the bigs. What followed was a decade of production that was seemingly unmatched by any other player. Seriously. Pujols placed outside of the top 5 for MVP only once in those 10 years, he only hit below .300 once in those ten years, and never failed to hit 30+ home runs. Albert Pujols’ career average is .308 despite hitting below .300 since 2010. As of today, Pujols has amassed a career WAR of 100.8, good enough for 20th on the all-time list. Pujols is one of the all-time greats, and he accomplished an all time feat on Saturday to very little fanfare.
Why? Did Pujols deserve to be quietly celebrated? Absolutely not. If anything, Pujols is a champion of what a ballplayer can do when not using performance enhancing drugs. But there’s still that doubt, isn’t there? In the back of your mind, just sitting there saying… “can’t be sure either way.”
When Pujols was accused of using PEDs by ex-player Jack Clark, he took legal action and sued Clark for defamation. Pujols dropped the lawsuit and Clark apologized, but the damage was done. Pujols and PEDs have now been connected out in the open and that would be enough for people’s minds to be made up. That’s not okay.
Did Pujols wrong the Cardinals by leaving town? No. He did what every young player is doing nowadays, waiting for that big paycheck and cashing in. I mean, when offered the largest baseball contract at the time, you take it. Could he have won another ring in St. Louis? Maybe, but he’s already got two.
Pujol’s has also been a great role model off the field. The Pujols Family Foundation is a non-=rofit organization that promotes awareness of Down Syndrome as well as working to support those who have it and their families. The Foundation also aids the poor in the Dominican Republic and supports people with disabilities and/or life-threatening illnesses. Pujols’ strength and love is not just something he keeps on the field.
Sure there has been a drop in his numbers since he turned 30, but it’s not like he’s hanging on to nothing. Pujols has hit 30+ homers in his past two seasons and knocked in 119 RBIs last year for the struggling Angels. Pujols is still an offensive powerhouse, or else why would he still be suiting up every night. The guy is one of the greatest to play the game, but we’ve forgotten that.
The MLB has actively been looking for ways to bring more of an audience to the game. Adding game clocks, challenges, removing intentional walks, all in the name of speeding up the game to attract new fans. Maybe we focus on other issues like fixing the public perception of your players. If there was a 50/50 chance that Steph Curry was somehow cheating from the three point line, I’m sure the NBA would fix the issue. Whereas the MLB is just going to let the public’s minds run wild, while innocent bystanders of the era get dragged through the mud. Pujols did nothing to have his achievement soiled by the actions and choices of others, but here we are with one of the all-time greats wondering why no one’s celebrating. It’s an odd silence.
After the 1994-95 Players strike, the MLB was in a tough spot. No one came out of the strike on the fan’s good side, and it seemed like a miracle was needed to regain the fans trust and admiration. Luckily for the MLB, Cal Ripken was close to breaking Lou Gehrig’s 56-year old consecutive game streak. By leaning on how amazing the streak was and how magic the game of baseball is, the MLB was able to grab the fans back relatively quickly. There’s something nostalgic and historic about this game, and that aspect is something other professional sports don’t have.
Pujols is now 124 hits away from joining the 3,000 hit club and it makes me sad thinking about how that will be received. Will there be any kind of pomp and circumstance or will his 3,000th hit fall like a tree in a forest with no one around to hear it? Maybe Buster Olney is right, it’s lonely at the top, but there’s plenty of scrutiny to go around.