The end of greatness is often gruesome enough to invoke pathos. Ken Griffey Jr., batting .184, walked away from the Mariners one night without saying a word to anyone. Mike Schmidt, hitting .203, abruptly quit on a road trip and brought up the one thing he would miss about Major League Baseball: room service fries. Babe Ruth, batting .181, battling the Boston Braves owner and limping on a sore knee, said he knew it was time to go when he singled on a triple in left field at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia.
Albert Pujols, the best hitter of his generation and the best first baseman since Lou Gehrig, was designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday with a batting average of .198. Pujols had been a .300 hitter in his career since his fifth game in the majors. It fell below .300 20 years later, on the second day of last season. Hitting .218 since then, he has left the Angels, and probably baseball forever, at .298.
Griffey, Schmidt, Ruth and Pujols played their last game in May, which speaks to when the end is obvious. Such is the exhaustion of hope that even a wide stretch of calendar ahead means nothing.
But this is the point of inglorious outings: they are not important. Who gazes at the arc of Griffey’s swing, the power of Schmidt’s bat, or Ruth’s impact on American culture and goes straight to how the sweetness ended? No one. So it will be with Pujols.
Today it feels bitter. Pujols’ game eroded with age, heavy legs and the growth of innings, which conspired against him just when he needed to cheat to get to a fastball. In the first 14 years of his career, Pujols hit .470 when he threw the ball. But faced with a phalanx of defenders on the left side of the infield in modern play, Pujols hit .335 that side since 2015. His .349 batting average in balls in play to the left side dropped to .261 in these matches. last seven years. Every grounder he hit to the left side, and there were many, was a sad reminder of what he once was.
Such images fade. What remains forever, carved deep in the stone of baseball history, is Pujols’ hitting genius. He did what the members of the Hall of Fame inner circle did – not only did he post extraordinary numbers, he changed the game.
Before the word existed, Pujols was an influencer. His hitting mechanics were so efficient and his baseball hitting so pure and consistent that coaches and players used him as a model. But like Koufax’s curveball and Ruth’s swing, few came close to duplicating Pujols’ results. Pujols and Hank Aaron are the only players with 600 home runs, 600 doubles and 3,000 hits.
Not everyone can go like Derek Jeter, who had that inside-out single in his last game at Yankee Stadium in 2014. As Jeter was heading to the finish line that year, I asked Pujols when he could tell when it was over. .
“I don’t know,” he told me. “It’s tough. I know I have several more years after this in my contract. I think timing will determine that. If I stop having fun in this game, it’s time to go. Regardless of what [the contract] it is.
“I play this game, since I was little, because I love it. Where I come from, that’s what they do. I just enjoy every moment. I am lucky to have this opportunity. Many, many people wish they had this opportunity.
“Sometimes you get caught in the pressure and you try to do too much and you forget to have fun. I always have fun talking to other guys. They even come to first base and ask me about hitting. I try to help them as much as I can in the 30 seconds before the pitcher throws the next pitch. That’s me. I don’t think that will ever change. That’s the same way they taught me growing up, having great people take me under their wing in St. Louis.
“Plácido Polanco is one of my best friends. He says, ‘When you lose that joy, when you stop having fun, I think it’s time to go.’
One of the many great pleasures I’ve enjoyed is spending time with Pujols in his batting cage while training in the offseason. As I wrote:
“To be inside the cage, with Pujols providing the lecture notes of what he does, is to be inside room 109 of Princeton’s Fine Hall in the days of Einstein.”
It happened right after he signed that 10-year, $ 240 million contract with the Angels. It was fascinating to watch such an impressive genius at work. The seriousness and focus were palpable.
“See that piece of tape on the back screen?” he asked me.
There was a small piece of tape in the net at the back of the cage about six feet from the ground.
“I want to hit him about a meter below that. I want to hit him at the same height as the field. “
He smashed ball after ball off the tee at the exact spot three feet below the tape. This was before most people talked about launch angle. Pujols didn’t want to paste anything but line units.
“Albert Pujols,” Lance Berkman told me, “is the greatest hitter of all time.”
Berkman, a teammate of his in St. Louis, said he made that distinction because Pujols was the best hitter in the modern game, as the bullpens deepened with specialists and the game was opened up to international talent.
The amazing part of the Pujols story is where he came from: out of nowhere, or at least according to the hyped baseball community. In a world where everyone wants to score the next great hitter, Pujols is probably the last Hall of Famer to arrive without fanfare. He played largely off the baseball grid at Maple Woods Community College. A Rockies scout dismissed him as “heavy-legged” with an erratic arm. The Rays tested him behind the plate and saw him fail to hit a home run in batting practice. The Cardinals took him with the 402nd pick in the 1999 draft, in the 13th round.
“When I was drafted, people said I wasn’t good enough to make it to the big leagues,” he said in 2012. “I’m used to dealing with those negative things. So here I am 11 years later, you know? “
Two years after being drafted, at 21, he was just another guy with a lineman number at Cardinals spring training camp. Manager Tony La Russa kept playing him all over the diamond. Pujols kept hitting. A few days before Opening Day, the Cardinals sent Pujols to minor league camp, preparing to officially reassign him to the minors. Then Bobby Bonilla tore a hamstring. And so the Pujols Era began.
In his first 10 seasons, Pujols averaged 41 home runs, 123 RBIs and a .331 / .426 / .624 cutoff line. It was one of the longest sustained hitting streaks in modern play. By comparison, Mike Trout averaged 30 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .304 / .418 / .582 line in his first 10 seasons.
It’s no wonder Pujols couldn’t sustain an elite hit with the Angels. It happened in the first place. There has been too much talk about his contract with the Angels, about what “an albatross” was like. If you look at baseball just as an actuary or fantasy league player, and your value as a player is reduced to a ratio of dollars paid to accumulated WAR, you are missing the human factor of the game.
Angels owner Arte Moreno knew what he was doing. He told me he wanted to sign Pujols for $ 25 million a year for eight years.
“In a perfect world there would be eight 25s,” Moreno said. “I don’t think you sign it in a perfect world.”
Moreno got what he called “the best baseball player.” He bought prestige for his club. Moreno had no debts. He hadn’t signed any players after 2015. He regularly attracted three million fans. He knew he had a handshake deal to triple his local television contract from $ 50 million to $ 150 million per year. Signing Pujols would practically guarantee that television deal and that the Angels would be visible. Moreno would also be landing one of the great hitting masters and the truest of the pros, traits that would play well with the young players in the Angels’ clubhouse.
Pujols hit 500 and 600 home runs in an Angels uniform. Your brand on the franchise will remain part of a 10-year personal services contract. Moreno had courted Pujols, fresh out of disappointment at how the Cardinals didn’t go the extra mile to retain him, assuring him that the Angels will “take care of their own,” explaining how former Angels like Bobby Grich and Rod Carew were always a part. of the team’s family.
It doesn’t matter if you wear a Cardinals cap or an Angels cap on your Hall of Fame plaque. That’s minutiae. His career was as big as anything we’ve seen since Aaron and Mays. All three MVPs. The amazing postseason home run by Brad Lidge In Houston. The stretch in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series that may be the best batting display ever seen in the Fall Classic: five hits from five pitchers in a six-inning span. The last three hits were home runs. He set a World Series record with 14 total bases.
Driven. It’s the best way to describe Pujols. Once she put on her uniform early each afternoon, she wore a Do Not Disturb look. He was unfocused and committed to the task, not because of a dark personality. If you approached Pujols, you did so cautiously, cautiously. But if you knew him, you knew the fierce look would melt quickly, especially if you wanted to talk about hitting.
Albert Pujols was so motivated that he calculated that he made 50,000 swings a year. Multiply that by 21 seasons and you get over a million changes. On his laptop, Pujols kept videos of all his game changes. If something didn’t feel quite right about his setup or swing, he could go back to one of his swings. The template template.
“What model year,” I asked, “is the reference template?”
He first said 2009, but then he thought for a second and added 2010, but then he thought some more and laughed when he realized the absurdity of choosing a decade-long swing from some of the best swings ever.
“Oh, one for 2010,” he said. “Someone.”
Any oscillation in any year between 10 years. Imagine that. Imagine such sustained greatness. Just try to imagine if we’ll ever see something like that again. And let that thought roll in your head today, not how one of the game’s great races came to an end.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.