Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Albert Pujols Amazes, But He's Also A Victim Of The Recent Past

Ryan Alberti pretty much already covered this topic, but I have to express it again, this time proving his point from an individual fan's perspective.

Albert Pujols trots casually around the base paths and into All-Star weekend on what one has to believe will be a professional highpoint for him. The mid-season festivities will take place in his baseball hometown of St. Louis, Mo. He will partake in the Home Run derby and the game, for which he was the leading vote-getter, a distinction he has never been more deserving of: Pujols is having the best season of a career filled with absolutely nothing but great ones, and I'm starting to wonder if its more than just a nickname, if he actually is a machine, if he truly is inhuman. Or if it is a little bit of something else, a persistent thought, the existence of which I am not responsible for.

Pujols flirts with the triple crown, leading the NL in homers and runs batted in whilst coming in third in batting average, attempting to become the first man to achieve that feat since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Sawx in 1967, and the first NL player to do it since another Cardinal, Joe Medwick, pulled it off all the way back in 1937. But that is only a margin of the equation. It is his startling, all-around consistency with the bat that makes it seem as though he was built, not born, still a noun but a thing rather than a person. Now in his ninth season, Pujols has never batted below .314, hit fewer than 32 home runs, or driven in less than 103 rbi's. His career 162-game averages? .334/43/130. He has a lifetime OPS of 1.058, the highest of any right-handed hitter in history and fourth all-time behind Bambino, Ballgame, and Iron Horse. Barring some unforeseen happening, he will be awarded with a third MVP honor at the end of the campaign. And so, in this age, when I think of think of "The Machine," I think of two possibilities, of which there is no in-between: either I am watching the greatest hitter ever...or the other thing.

I think you know what the other thing is. Recent history has told us that if a baseball player seems too good to be true, he probably is. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa performed an all-out assault on the record books in 1998, captivating a country, transcending the game as they bumped off Roger Maris (and Sosa would hit 60+ bombs two more times). It was only later that we realized they were doing it with the aid of enhancements. Some wondered if they were not witnessing the best player ever in Bonds, his output at the plate from '01 to '04 the most eye-popping since Babe Ruth, even though they were achieved during the stage of Bonds' career when he should have been in decline. Soon after, these years of Barry's would be stigmatized by the same kind of asterisk. Then we had Alex Rodriguez, the pure talent who was to bring purity back to the all-time home run mark, and Manny Ramirez, the autistic genius wood wielder, meet similar fates as fallen Gods of the diamond whose accomplishments are now tainted.

And now here's Pujols, ostensibly programmed to belt baseballs, but someone who, because of the realities of what we have seen, I have no choice but to be a little skeptical. Ten years ago, I'd have thought nothing of this, I'd have simply bowed; today I am still reverential but in the back of my mind I am, oh, I don't know, well, like I said, skeptical. You can't blame me. It sucks, and you can charge it to the game that rather than being able to just marvel at and enjoy someone hitting for average and power on such a startlingly consistent basis, I also must wonder if it is being done naturally.

No comments: