For many years, the home run was so ubiquitous that we grew numb.
Barry Bonds slugged away until he dislodged Hank Aaron at the top of the heap, and a generational rift about the true king was born, even as all ages probably can’t name the new 755 (It’s 762).
Alex Rodriguez kept banging until he landed on 696 home runs, and we cringed, an all-time great capable of anything on the field yet far too skilled at self-sabotage off it.
Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome and Ken Griffey Jr. soared past the 600-homer plateau, and Gary Sheffield and Frank Thomas and David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez obliterated the 500 mark and we shrugged, desensitized to big round numbers in an era it seemed everyone was doing it.
The past quarter-century, in fact, has produced 14 of the 28 players to exceed 500 home runs, starting with Eddie Murray in 1997 and ending with the great Miguel Cabrera, who slugged No. 500 in August 2021 and added his 3,000th hit in April to join an even more exclusive club.
And that brings us to Albert Pujols.
He and Cabrera are the two greatest right-handed hitters of their generation and probably many others, Cabrera the constant Triple Crown threat (and one-time winner) and Pujols the author of seven 40-homer seasons, truly machinelike in his production.
Both played through the teeth of the so-called steroid era, Pujols starting in 2001 and Cabrera in 2003, both continuing to produce since true PED testing was introduced in 2005. Like Cabrera, Pujols claims membership in the 3,000-hit/500-homer club, a group that was just Hank and Willie until Murray joined them in ’96, to be followed by the steroid-sullied Palmeiro and A-Rod, and then Cabrera and Pujols.
Yet the century of the mega-milestone is about to run dry. And it is time we paused to appreciate.
Barry, Hank, Babe-and Albert
Friday night, Pujols pounded the 699th and 700th home runs of his career, a chase that’s drawn some fanfare but far from the breathless coverage it might have merited when baseball was more a thing and less an appetizer for football season. Instead, Pujols in the last 15 months has been a Neat Little Story, shrugging off the indignity of his release from him by the Los Angeles Angels to become the beloved Uncle on a Dodgers team happy to snap him up in 2021.
This season brought both the designated hitter to the National League and a victory lap, with Pujols signing on for one more ride in St. Louis, where he remains beloved and would be forgiven any indignities that might arise during a 42-year-old’s farewell season.
Instead, he has further verified his greatness and passed another checkpoint in stunning fashion Friday night.
When Pujols sent a ball deep over the Dodger Stadium fence – his second homer of the night – it was his 21st home run of the season, his most since 2019. His .868 OPS is his best since 2011 – his most recent season in St Louis – and his adjusted OPS of 147 is the most he’s exceeded league average since 2010, when he just missed a fourth NL MVP award.
And suddenly, he’s left the pack and reached a far lonelier summit.
The 700 club is merely a quartet, topped by Bonds, followed by Aaron, Babe Ruth’s 714 homers and now Pujols. It is a stunning circle to join and an appropriate one, even if the ink still isn’t dry on Pujols’ accomplishments.
Only Pujols, Bonds and Aaron have exceeded 1,300 career extra-base hits. In his first 10 seasons, Pujols had at least a .300 batting average and .900 OPS, exceeding 1,000 in eight of those years, a span that saw both expanded drug testing and the beginning of offensive suppression.
And now, alone at 700, it’s a little unsettling to think Pujols might not have company for a long while.
Oh, we’re not in the business of declaring someone will be “the last guy to” do this or that. Baseball is cyclical, and it’s been maybe five minutes since some forecast the death of the 300-game winner, only for this Justin Verlander fellow to approach 250 wins with a brand new bionic elbow and a desire to pitch toward AARP eligibility.
No, someone will get to 700 again. Yet we can’t ignore that the next man on the list (Cabrera, 506) will likely retire after next season. And that the guy after him (Nelson Cruz, 459) may not find a job in 2023.
Everyone else north of 300 is also north of 30 years old, from Giancarlo Stanton (373, 32) to current teammate Paul Goldschmidt (315, 35). Pujols, it should be noted, was 28 when he topped 300 in 2008.
Really, the only ones to watch for the next decade are the holy trinity that stepped on the scene for good in 2012: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Yet Trout has been dogged by injury since we contemplated how high he might fly last year. Still, his recent run of seven homers in seven games was a reminder that, at 31 years old and with 346 homers, he will climb the list faster than anyone.
Harper (284) and Machado (281) will each hit the big 3-Oh in the next 10 months, are in phenomenal physical condition and could have close to a decade of significant production left. It’s a good bet at least one of these guys’ final home run total will begin with a 6, maybe a 7.
But all will face headwinds Pujols largely avoided.
A slugger for any era
It’s fair to wonder what the next generation of otherworldly sluggers might look like, what with the 99-mph fastball an expectation, not an aberration, and pitching advancements far outpacing hitting. At least for now.
Greatness will always find its level, which is why Aaron Judge is knocking on Roger Maris’ door, and 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez can slam 27 homers in his first season, or 25-year-old Yordan Alvarez can pound 33 and 37 (and counting) in his first two full seasons. Yet the modern game evolves so quickly, and is so difficult (yup, harder than the game you old heads watched), that success is rarely linear.
Sure, health is a factor, but we’re in an era when Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger can win NL MVPs in consecutive years, and struggle for answers while still in their prime. Where even a 6-7, 280-pound marvel like Judge can hit 52 homers in his rookie year, and barely half that in each of the following two seasons.
Their peaks and valleys only make Pujols’ decade-plus of enduring greatness even more awe-inspiring. He just kept stacking those MVP-level years, one on top of the other, until his picture-perfect right-handed swing produced a 700th homer.
And it may be a long time until Pujols finds a company in the exclusive club he just joined, a starting milestone after a quarter-century when they came with unsettling frequency.
So, take a moment to recognize a man who slugged his way through multiple eras, and now stands alone among his generation.