It’s not that difficult to see why Albert Pujols is a special guy.
The St. Louis Cardinals' slugger doesn’t lack admirable qualities.
But perhaps the best reason to admire him is for what he said after hitting career home run No. 400 last week.
“It’s a special milestone, but I don’t play for numbers,” Pujols said.
That’s coming from a guy who is, at least on the ball field, defined by numbers.
That’s coming from a guy who has churned out 30-HR, 100-RBI seasons every year since he debuted in the Big Leagues 10 seasons ago.
That’s coming from a guy who won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2006, is on his way to becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and is still completely consumed by winning.
Pujols hit his blast in the fourth inning of an eventual loss to the Washington Nationals. There was no stoppage in play, no real excess emotion from Pujols.
The man makes a living obliterating baseballs, and so he acted like it.
Pujols became the third-youngest player ever to accomplish the feat, behind only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is the only guy in history to hit 400 bombs before turning 30 years old.
The fact that Pujols has put up remarkable seasons at an alarming rate while staying relatively healthy begs a fun question: Where will Pujols stand amongst the greatest sluggers of all time when he’s done playing?
The home run king
Who’s the current home-run king depends on whom you ask.
The record books say Barry Bonds.
Bonds hit 762 homers in 22 seasons and is, for now anyway, officially recognized by Major League Baseball as the all-time home-run leader.
But there are still many baseball fans who recognize Hank Aaron as the home-run king due to Bonds’ alleged steroid use.
Hammerin’ Hank became the all-time leader when he hit No. 715 on April 8, 1974.
That blast officially passed Babe Ruth, and Aaron ended his career with 755 homers, now seven shy of Bonds.
Alex Rodriguez is the only current player even remotely close to getting to Bonds.
Rodriguez is in his 17th season and has 604 career homers. If he stays healthy and productive, he could have a chance to pass Bonds at age 40, or in about five years.
Whether or not Pujols has a chance to get to Bonds, and beyond, remains to be seen. He’s too far off from the number to make any real prediction.
In order to get there, though, Pujols needs good health.
Pujols is on the same path that Ken Griffey Jr. was on when he left the Seattle Mariners to go to Cincinnati. Many injury-plagued seasons later, and Griffey never had the chance to chase Bonds like we thought he would.
Pujols plays first base, a position that he can stay at as he ages. It’s hard to say with certainty what path Pujols’ career will take simply because there’s never been anybody like him. Not a one.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that guys like Pujols—i.e. thick power hitters—age worse than other players and decline more quickly.
Once the bat speed goes, as they say, the power goes and then the player goes.
But this is King Albert.
He’s a big guy, but in phenomenal shape. The public perception of Pujols is that he is a family man who lives a quiet life away from the field.
Both of those would point to Pujols being able to sustain his level of play as he proceeds through his 30s.
For this debate, and for fun, let's just assume Pujols will be healthy.
As of today, Pujols has averaged about 43 home runs for every 162 games played.
If we simply averaged that out for another 10 seasons, Pujols would have 831 homers after 20 seasons (not including any homers he hits during the rest of 2010). He would be 40 years old.
But we know that won’t be the case.
First off, Pujols won’t play every single game. Prior to this season, Pujols has averaged approximately 155 games per season.
Secondly, we don’t expect Pujols to continue to hit homers at that rate every season as he grows older. Sure, it’s possible, but the body isn’t supposed to work like that.
Supposed to being the key there. With Pujols, I guess anything is possible, so we’ll see.
We can’t have this discussion without mentioning the indelible stain that has been left on Pujols’ era.
Of course, steroid allegations, or admittance on A-Rod’s part, will forever leave a stench on the careers of Bonds and Rodriguez.
The way sluggers transformed the game in the late '90s and early 2000s was so extraordinary that many of us thought it to be almost impossible to launch balls out of the yard at the rate that some guys did.
As it turned out, it was indeed impossible to do that naturally for many of them.
Bonds has loads and loads of allegations and BALCO reports stacked against him, but he has never admitted using steroids.
In fact, he’s denied it almost as strongly as Roger Clemens has and, also like Clemens, was indicted for it.
Because of his arrogance and refusal to speak on the matter, many baseball folks want his career wiped clean. They don’t want him anywhere near the record.
Rodriguez headed down the same path, but then held an interview with Peter Gammons admitting his use, and later held a more in-depth press conference at the outset of spring training to further answer questions.
Rodriguez then went on to have a good season, hit well in October, and helped bring the Yankees a World Series title.
In New York, much has been forgiven with A-Rod.
Nationally? There will always be people on both sides.
Paint us as cynical, but it’s almost amazing that Pujols came up in a steroid-laden era, immediately became one of the greatest hitters ever, and has avoided steroid accusations along the way.
But that speaks about baseball, not Pujols.
Given how blatant steroid use has been in the last 15 years or so, there are many who view great hitters like Pujols as dirty until they prove they are clean.
Although baseball didn’t help itself by turning its back on steroids when McGwire and Sosa were busy revitalizing the sport in the summer of ’98, it’s nothing less than reckless and irresponsible to cast guilt on a player simply because his numbers are on par with those of the juicers (now would be a good time to send apologies to Jose Bautista).
What’s fascinating about all of this is that there are many questions left unanswered, questions that take the discussion a different direction.
How did the relentless bigotry and hate that Henry Aaron dealt with during his climb to the top affect his performance?
How many homers would Babe Ruth have had if his seasons were 162 games instead of 154 (the A.L. didn’t switch to a 162-game schedule until ’61, meaning Ruth lost out on potentially 176 more games).
Yes, Bonds and A-Rod juiced, but how much do steroids really affect the art of hitting a baseball, anyway (not making this point, just raising it)?
We will see where Pujols ends up. He’s a young man with, hopefully, many more years to play.
I’d be lying if I said I had any idea where he ends up on the all-time homer list.
There’s just too much at stake and too much unknown to say.
For fun, I’ll put my money on 785.
And if Albert continues to do it the way he has until now, nobody will have the right to claim his place atop the all-time home run list wasn’t achieved with character and integrity.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at email@example.com.