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Ten Years Down and Already Cooperstown-Bound

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--The biggest compliment that is bestowed on any professional athlete is election into their respective Hall of Fame. Inclusion into the Hall states that he or she is among the top 1% of the 1% that plays a sport for a living. If you have ever questioned the greatness of Albert Pujols, find solace in this: he could quit playing baseball tomorrow and still get into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The numbers do not lie. Pujols has done things in ten short years that many wish to emulate--even baseball’s elite.

People are supposed to scratch and claw for 20 hard seasons to maybe wind up in the discussion for Hall of Fame induction. Not Pujols. His body of work allows him to comfortably coast into Cooperstown on the mediocrity train, or even hang it up right now. But do not expect to see such an occurrence from the three-time MVP. Complacency is his only enemy.

Pujols’ work ethic borders on obsessive compulsive, in the most complementary of ways. And it seems to flow into all aspects of his life; he scored a perfect 100 on his U.S. Citizenship Exam. It is proof that anything he puts his “robot” mind to, and “machine” heart is in, he will perfect. Becoming an even better baseball player is absurd to ponder, but not out of the question for the 30 year-old.

This mentality translated to his defense. People are quick to forget he has experienced three position changes during his ten years in the Majors. And this was not a middle infielder switching from shortstop to third or second to short. He went from the hot corner to the outfield, back to the opposite corner infield position.

Movement across the field would suggest that his defense is shaky; that Tony La Russa attempted to hide his liability somewhere in a lineup without a DH. History shows that Pujols simply had better defensive third basemen squeeze him out. Whatever the original intent, Pujols never complained. He just worked even harder on his glove.

Being labeled “half a player” was never an option, even when he found a home at a position where such a title is tolerable. Pujols’ 2006 Gold Glove, at first base, might be the greatest (and his most proud) achievement thus far. The hitting came naturally. This award represents his ability to transform weakness into strength, and do everything the game asks him to do--at the highest level.

With all of this, Pujols still receives criticism; the victim of hype he never asked for and book-cover judgment. Casual baseball fans see him with his thick gold chain and expect him to be something he is not: flashy, egotistical, and vocal. It is what every other superstar athlete has conditioned the masses to anticipate.
Fans of all types are guilty of expecting Pujols will be clutch in every situation. However, his mind-boggling career numbers do not always scale down to a single plate appearance, nor should they. No one, not even Pujols, is immune to an 0-for-4 night with a couple of strikeouts. Baseball is still a sport where failure 7 out of 10 times is extraordinary.

Naysayers are quick to point out that Pujols holds no single-season records, been involved in very few milestone “races,” and has only once finished a season as the Major League leader in home runs (47 in 2009), once in batting average (.359 in 2003), and remarkably never finished as the best in RBIs. Since when did showing up to work and doing it better than anyone in history become uninteresting?

Even our A.D.D./viral media society has begun to downplay the greatness of Pujols. His consistency, demeanor, and family life are dull compared to the modern sports landscape that loves its drama. While his global brand is minimal and he does not play in a large market, do not presume Pujols will “pull a LeBron.” Selfish decisions to keep the spotlight on him are highly out of character.

It is fitting that the career of a soft-spoken legend will be better represented by a spreadsheet than a highlight reel (with one jaw-dropping exception). It is much the same as watching the ocean crash against a rocky cliff is not that noteworthy. However, measuring the amount of rock and earth that has been swept away over a large period of time is remarkable.

Pujols’ legacy will be remembered in a similar fashion, as all the current career records may be washed away in a monotonous manner. Oh, if we could all be so boring.

There is only one way to explain how a 13th Round pick has transformed into the “first” Major League player to do this, or the “youngest” to do that. Albert Pujols is the most consistent human being on the planet.
You can take the lowest single-season totals in the illustrious nine completed seasons of Pujols and they read as misprints: .314 AVG, 103 RBIs, 32 HR, .561 SLG.

By comparison--counting only seasons where he played over 100 games--Willie Mays’ “worst of” would look like: .263 AVG, 18 HR, 58 RBIs, .437 SLG. The scary thing about those numbers is how pedestrian one of the greatest players in the history under the microscope, focused on the wrong areas.

Even scarier is that Pujols lacks these pockets of data that could even be skewed negatively. Mays, like every baseball immortal, simply had blips on the radar that were statistical outliers; it’s only natural. People are not machines. Well, the jury is still out on Pujols.

So for everyone who thinks that Albert Pujols is having a down year and the best could be behind, forget about it. As certain as the Earth orbits around the Sun, Pujols will hit .300, have 30+ home runs, and knock in 100 runs. He will finish in the top 5 in the MVP voting and probably carry his team into the playoffs. It is what Pujols does, and why the Hall of Fame should go ahead and jot his phone number down.

As long as the MVPs never get tangled up with headlines involving PEDs, he is a first-ballot sure thing. All baseball fans are crossing their fingers.

Now the 300 million dollar question remains not whether his numbers will continue, but whether his numbers will continue in a Cardinals uniform. Maybe after his contract expires next season he should retire. That way he won't break the game of baseball by achieving every possible high score.

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