Albert Pujols' latest feat: telling us why he is not a home run hitter
Pujols is hitting home runs at a greater rate than any player in the game
He has 10 multi-homer games, one shy of the major league record
He also leads the NL in RBIs, runs, total bases, OBP and slugging percentage
Albert Pujols was explaining, in no uncertain terms, that he is not a home run hitter. He is a line-drive hitter who happens to be strong enough (thanks to the gifts God gave him) to drive a few pitches over the fence. But he's not a home run hitter. And, it was pretty clear -- from the tenseness in his voice, his glare -- that he resented the insinuation.
The insinuation, in case you are wondering, was made Jeopardy-style, in the form of a question: "Albert, you are hitting home runs every 10 or 11 at-bats, and before this year you were hitting them every 14 or so at-bats. Are you doing anything different?" And I should add here that I did not ask it. The questioner -- the fine and feisty beat writer of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Joe Strauss -- asked it, and he did so knowing full well that he would get a testy answer. So it goes. Getting testy answers after games from the game's greatest player is part of the job when you cover the Cardinals.
And it's especially true when the game's best player hits two home runs in a game -- something that Pujols does with regularity. On this early September afternoon Pujols hit two home runs against Milwaukee, the 10th time he had hit two homers in a game this year. That tied a team record, and is one behind the major league record. Pujols hits multiple homers in a game so often now that Cardinals' reporters have to find different ways to ask him about it. Strauss decided to go with the homer-per-at-bat theme. The theme did not capture Pujols' interest. Then again, themes rarely do.
"I'm putting good swings on my at-bats," Pujols said. "That's it. I'm not a home run hitter."*
*I should point out here that Pujols' answers to all the questions asked of him while I was following the team -- Should he be MVP? Does he care about MVP? How good has the Cardinals' starting pitching been? Why are the Cardinals playing so well? What does he think of having Matt Holliday hit behind him? -- were all delivered in the same careful and challenging way. So this wasn't a case of Pujols being hypersensitive to the ramifications of being called a "home run hitter." At least I don't think so, because he answered every other question the same way. This is just Pujols.
I was around the Cardinals for a few days, working on this week's Sports Illustrated story that revolves around Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. But as it always goes when I'm around the Cardinals, I spent a lot of my time observing Albert Pujols. He is endlessly fascinating to me, in large part, I suppose, because there is nothing obviously or markedly fascinating about him. He just plays baseball better than anyone in the world.
He has 47 homers, 127 RBIs, 119 runs, 352 total bases and 42 intentional walks, all MLB-leading totals. His on-base percentage (.449) and slugging percentage (.690) also lead the majors. He's a terrific defensive first baseman. He's a daring base runner -- shockingly so (and, yes, sometimes unfortunately so) for a man without much speed.
He is so good that he overpowers the game. Every St. Louis Cardinals inning begins with a single question: "Will Albert come up?" And if not, will he come up next inning? And if he comes up, will there be men on base? And if there are men on base, will they pitch to him? And if they pitch to him, how will they pitch to him? And -- well, how is Pujols going to help the Cardinals win today?
His is a consistent, daily form of greatness ... this means the more you watch the Cardinals, the more you appreciate Albert Pujols. And I guess that's what fascinates me about him. How can he be this good all the time? How is it that he never has an off season? How can he be so consistent when nothing around him stays the same? Baseball changes. Bats and balls change. His body changes. Pitchers change. Teammates change. Strategies change. And he endures, precisely the same, as if he's preserved inside a glass case -- minimum .320 batting average, minimum .420 on-base percentage, minimum .560 slugging percentage, every single year.
Of course, Pujols deflects such questions or ignores them. He is good, he says, because God made him so. He is good, he says, because he works hard. He is good, he says, because he takes 'em one game at a time, and he doesn't worry about what he can't control, and he doesn't try to do too much. "See the ball, hit the ball," Hall of Famer Tony Perez used to say whenever someone wanted to get to the heart of his excellence, and so it goes with Pujols. In the clubhouse, after games, he tends to avoid reporters. And when his performance is so good that he must speak, he treats each question with suspicion -- as if each question is an attempt to steal a little something from him.
This has left the people who write about Pujols every day ambivalent about him. They admire his brilliance, of course. But they resent the daily grind, every day another day of being ignored or treated dismissively by Pujols. It isn't something that most baseball fans care about -- nobody is all that crazy about sportswriters anyway -- but it's part of the Pujols story, too.
I should point out here that I had a wonderful extended interview with Pujols before the season began -- he was warm and open and thoughtful. But there's no question that Pujols in-season is different. And maybe that's telling. Because it seems to me that what can make Pujols difficult and cantankerous on a daily basis might have something to do with what makes him great.
Take his answer about hitting more home runs: Pujols simply refuses to allow the question to take hold. He denies the whole premise. He's not a home run hitter. He will not allow the question (or the fact that he is hitting home runs at a faster pace than anyone in the game) to define him. He will not allow anything that is distracting to interfere with his singular goal -- to play baseball well.
And so, it seems to me, Pujols doesn't just wield those clichés for reporters' purposes. No, he lives them. He really does take 'em one game at a time, one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time. He lives in the moment, and he just tries to hit the ball hard, and he plays always to win. His motivations -- to glorify God, to prove people wrong, to honor the game, whatever you want to believe -- are beside the point. Questions are beside the point. Talk is beside the point. The point for Albert Pujols is to hit the ball hard. Everything else is just noise.
This doesn't make him especially fun to approach after a game, even a two-home run game. But it's part of what makes him the best baseball player on earth. And it's what makes him likely to have many more two-homer games, even if he isn't a home run hitter.
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