Pujols, on the record
Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and tonight Albert Pujols. That's the list of players who have hit three home runs in a World Series game. The first two are in the Hall of Fame, with a space waiting for the new guy. Pujols' dominating 5 for 6, 3 home run, 6 RBI performance in Game 3 silenced the Texas crowd–and critics who berated the slugger for not talking after the Cardinals' 3-2 loss in Game 2.
Writers decried Pujols' lack of leadership, while television analysts dissected what it all might mean. Were the Cardinals done? Had Pujols vacated his leadership role? Meanwhile Pujols waited it out, took the field for Game 3, and the rest is now history.
It was an act of simple, brutal athletic skill, and exposed an ironic side story. These complaining, cantankerous, confused writers and television analysts represent everything wrong with modern sports. Rather than magnifying the drama that takes place on the field, they fret about what doesn't happen in a locker room when the game is already over. Players like Pujols represent what is right with modern sports: superior athletes in crucial games rising to the occasion not in word, but in deed.
Albert Pujols has not come to talk about winning the World Series. He has come to win the World Series. (He has, also, already won one World Series.) I find it interesting that Dirk Nowitzki threw out the first pitch for Game 3. He who quietly led the Dallas Mavericks past the inflated LeBron James-led Miami Heat--one of the best talking teams of all time. But talking to the media is easy. Any clown can do that. But rising to the occasion in a championship series, that's hard. That's what should be talked about.
I find it highly dubious that we get to watch one of the greatest baseball players in history, on baseball's biggest stage, while so much time is wasted talking about what this guy is not doing off the field. This is the realm of poor writers. Meanwhile the Rangers won a hard-fought Game 2, breaking open a 1-0 lock in the 9th inning with hustle to win 2-1. Beautiful baseball. It was all there on the field.
Which brings me to another point: athletes gain nothing talking to the media. Would it bother anyone if Tom Brady suddenly took a vow of silence? Would anyone care less about Dirk's heroics if he gave no interviews? Of course not. What matters is what happens in the game. You can bet ESPN was freaking when the NFL's lockout threatened the upcoming season because there's not enough character stories in the world that can make up for one week of action on the field. And what makes sports beautiful--and worth writing about is everything happens on the field. Not talking to the media is not a story, no matter how hard you try, and to attempt to make it one, next to the drama of an actual game is just insulting.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has called baseball a cruel game, and it is. It's the only game that takes the time to record errors, forever. The box score is essentially a written record of failure, many more outs than not. And these are the obvious failures. Then there the sneaky, subtle ones. The momentary lapses in hustle that can end up costing a game and turning a series. Pujols found this out at the end of Game 2 when he failed to reach an errant throw from center fielder John Jay. He stabbed at the ball when maybe he should have dove on it like a live grenade, smothering its momentum. Instead the ball skipped past his glove and up the third base line. Seizing the moment, Elvis Andrus went from first to second and later scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
Pujols has played enough baseball to know the magnitude of that missed play. In a moment, an entire season's work can be undone. Baseball series notoriously turn on such things. Pujols' fate is to play the cruelest game of them all, to live with constant failure, to get up and do it again the next day, to miss a ball by an inch and watch the game turn on its head. While he may have displayed "zero leadership after Game 2 loss" as one writer bravely declared, he displayed the best and rarest kind of leadership during Game 3. He overcame in the toughest crucible in sports, batter against pitcher, by collecting five hits, depositing three into the outfield seats.
After the dust settles, the crowd has left, and writers have written, Albert Pujols remains. He is above what anyone claims him to be or not to be. He is a superstar and thus both accessible to our judgment and totally inaccessible. He teases us by maybe caring, but he does not and should not. He makes his own claim every night on the baseball field and that by itself is beyond whatever we think we can add or subtract. We do him no justice. He is simply what he is between the chalk lines. That is, he is one of the greatest of all time.