Monday, May 22, 2006
The projection is 81 for Albert Pujols, and 81 homers has the unprecedented heft to be a very uncomfortable number for a lot of people in baseball.
Barry Bonds, after his 714th career homer pulled him irreversibly into the shadow of Ruthian mythology Saturday, said almost immediately, "You guys can go watch Albert Pujols now. Because he's doing some wonderful things."
Right. And the wonderful things he's doing don't likely include deca-durabolin.
"I hear some people, some writers saying you know, 'Oh maybe he's on steroids,' " Pujols told Orel Hershiser on ESPN yesterday. "They can test me anytime they want. Look at me. Look at my body. If I've done anything to it, it's getting fatter."
The great Cardinals slugger hit his 20th, 21st and 22nd homers over the weekend, which certainly did nothing to lessen the chances that he'll become the fourth person in the past nine seasons to eclipse the single-season home-run record of 61 held by Roger Maris for 37 years.
Six times between 1998 and 2001, Maris' 61 was surpassed by three different suspects, once by Barry Bonds, twice by Mark McGwire, three times by Sammy Sosa.
Pujols is not a suspect.
I know this because the eminent bow tie-wearing political columnist and sometimes baseball author George F. Will already has said the steroids era in baseball is over, and no one writes about the game with more authority than he, regardless of whether he actually has any.
Though I'd put at roughly 90 percent the chunk of Will's reliably conservative literature that I either disagree with or simply don't want to believe, I really do want to believe his guess on the relative influence of steroids in the game five years after Bonds' 73 appeared in the game's hyper-revered record book.
Apparently Nerio Rodriguez isn't as avid a reader of the op-ed page as I.
Rodriguez, a Pirates' minor-leaguer continuing his apparent quest at age 35 to be employed by every organization in the game, was suspended for 50 games Friday for using a performance-enhancing substance. Rodriguez's "enhanced" performance was a 1-2 record and a 4.84 earned run average for Class AAA Indianapolis.
The notion that steroids are gone from the game, even without the evidence that they're being trafficked by non-prospect 35-year-old Class AAA pitchers, is highly dubious, but in the case of Albert The Great, baseball probably shouldn't worry.
For one thing, 22 homers by late May, stunning as it might be, does not guarantee the fall of records in September. Mickey Mantle started faster in 1956 and stopped at 52 homers. Luis Gonzalez started faster in 2001 and hit 57.
But more pointedly, Pujols is right about his body, as it lacks the anabolic qualities of Bonds and McGwire and Sosa, whose physical dimensions expanded markedly as their production ballooned to history smashing levels. Though the Cardinals list Pujols at 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, 10-15 pounds heavier than his rookie specifications, he doesn't appear any larger in the arms, shoulders and head.
Unlike Bonds and Sosa, who developed their home-run strokes and learned to drive in runs on a graduated track in their big-league careers, and unlike McGwire, who was as likely to hit fewer than 10 homers as he was to hit more than 40 over the first nine years of an injury hampered career, Pujols was an astoundingly accomplished hitter almost from the minute he put on a professional uniform.
He spent all of one season in the minor leagues, where he scorched three cities in the Cardinals' system in one 96-RBI summer before arriving in St. Louis. Since the moment he arrived, no one in the National League has hit more homers or driven in more runs than this 26-year-old Dominican who moved to Kansas City with his father 10 years ago. No one in major-league history got 1,000 hits faster than he, and no player in major-league history duplicated his 30 or more homers in each of his first five seasons.
Pujols woke up yesterday leading the majors in homers, RBIs, runs, total bases and slugging percentage. The only scarier site than Albert walking to the plate in St. Louis is Albert walking to the plate in PNC Park, where he has homered 18 times, more than in any other road park, more than any visiting player, and, of course, more than some Pirates.
To watch Pujols is to be privileged to see the baseball rebirth of Mantle, of Frank Robinson, of Joe DiMaggio. Those in his sphere describe a humble, genuine, caring person whose Pujols Family Foundation reaches out to victims of Down Syndrome and to impoverished families of the Dominican Republic.
Baseball couldn't have a better character to tear up its tainted record books. It would just feel a lot better if we hadn't said the same things about McGwire and Sosa.
(Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283. )