Twenty-two years. Seven hundred home runs.
Albert Pujols achieved a level of greatness only three other players in the history of the game have matched when he hit No. 700 on Friday night — his second homer of the evening at Dodger Stadium. He joins Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only players in the exclusive 700-home run club.
As the St. Louis Cardinals slugger made his march for history, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, Buster Olney and Alden Gonzalez asked current and former teammates, opposing pitchers and other greats in the game to describe their favorite moments and what it has been like playing with, pitching to and simply witnessing an all-time great home run hitter during Pujols’ two decades in the majors.
Mike Trout: ‘This is for 600. This is gonna be sick right here’
“The grand slam, when he hit 600. Just the situation. I mean, it was a big spot in the game, and everyone was thinking the same thing. ‘This is for 600. This is gonna be sick right here.’ And then he hit it. He loves the moment. And that’s the thing — people kept asking me, ‘Hey, do you think he’s going to get it ?’ For sure. The way Albert prepares himself — he doesn’t change his approach, doesn’t try to hit a homer. He’s just trying to put a good swing on the ball. That’s big.”
Manny Machado: Game 3 of the 2011 World Series? ‘You could even throw the rosin bag and he was probably going to hit it out’
“That was just incredible. I mean, he was not missing. You could throw him whatever and he was going to hit it. You could even throw the rosin bag and he was probably going to hit it out. Just that sweet swing. Even all his homers, going back — his first home run. I just admire that swing, how smooth it is, how long it stays in the path. It’s impressive.”
Tony La Russa: ‘That gave us life’
“In 2006, we had a big lead and everyone got hurt, so it came down to September and we were struggling to get into the playoffs. San Diego came into town and it was a Wednesday night, we had lost the first two games of the series, down a run in the eighth inning, the Padres brought in a real good sinkerball pitcher [Cla Meredith], and he hit a three-run homer and won the game. That gave us life.
“His true claim to fame is he is a high-average hitter who has extra-base power. He plays the scoreboard. With a runner on second, he’s trying to hit a line-drive single and then he may get all of it for a two-run homer. He’ll go foul line to foul line and he hits all different pitches. When he gets that underspin with his swing, he gets that carry.”
Paul Goldschmidt: ‘If you wrote it up perfectly, this is what you would write’
“There’s been three or four home runs I’ve been absolutely amazed at. The [Drew] Smyly one at his eyes was impressive. The one in Pittsburgh. That one passed A-Rod (on the all-time home runs list) and was a game winner. There was another game winner when it was 0-0 and he homered. And then the ones against the Padres. A two-homer game … kind of like storybook. That’s what I’ll remember. If you wrote it up perfectly, this is what you would write: Albert with the game on the line — and he actually comes through. Amazing.”
Nolan Arenado: ‘He doesn’t think about hitting home runs’
“I’m probably going to say something people don’t like, but he doesn’t think about hitting home runs. That’s what he tells me, and I believe him. With the way he swings, the way he works, talking to him, he says he never thinks about it. And he’s not going to change what’s worked for him. It’s about getting on top of the baseball, backspinning the baseball, and wherever it goes, it goes. He talks the talk and walks the walk with saying those things. And I really believe him.”
Mark McGwire: It’s all in the hands
“I’m a true believer in the bottom hands being the key to swinging the bat. You watch Albert. He never lets go of that bottom hand until he has to run. To me, that’s the driving force in his swing and why he’s one of the best ever.”
Chris Carpenter: The Machine calls his own shots
“There were multiple times he would go up there for his first at-bat and come back and tell us he was going to hit a homer the next time up. I couldn’t tell you how many times that happened and he would do it. It happened a lot because he understood after one time how they were going to attack him. He was amazing to watch play.”
Matt Holliday: And he’s earned the right to admire his home runs
“When you hit 700 home runs, you know when it’s going out and when it’s not. The guy that bothers me is the guy who [has three career home runs] and it hits the wall and he gets a single. That guy needs to run. But when you hit 700, you know what it feels like. If anyone can give advice on when a ball is going to go over the wall or not, he’s right at the top of the list.”
Mike Matheny: ‘He walked up … like his family wasn’t going to eat unless he made a pitcher pay’
“You run out of ways to describe how unique, different and special he is. He’s relentless. I’ve never seen a hitter who would not, could not give away an at-bat. It didn’t matter if he had four [hits] that night, he walked up to that fifth one like his family wasn’t going to eat unless he made a pitcher pay. The intensity he was able to maintain from Day 1 of spring training until he got sent home at the end … the consistency sticks out.”
Jim Edmonds: ‘If Albert doesn’t get hurt, we’re talking 800 or 850’
“If Albert doesn’t get hurt and plays three-quarters in Anaheim of how he played here, we’re talking about 800 or 850 [home runs]. When he first got back here, your brain is telling you what everyone is telling you: ‘You can’t hit righties anymore and you’re swinging for the fences.’ Well, he’s turned back into a pure hitter.
“He won’t back down. I’ve seen him take a knuckleball out to right field and I’ve seen him take a 102 mph fastball out to left field. This guy is just relentless about his approach at the plate. He took Kyle Farnsworth deep in 2004 on 100 mph and I’m sitting on deck thinking, ‘Wow.'”
“What’s been interesting is watching him grow this year: from leg kick to overswinging to chasing pitches to turning back into a hitter. When he did that, he started hitting home runs … He’s got another year in him, for sure. I know he’s not going to play, but he could.”
Brad Lidge: ‘I made a mistake — and it wasn’t super surprising that he didn’t make a mistake’
Lidge broke into the big leagues the year after Pujols, and initially, he had some success against the Cardinals slugger. But somewhere around his second or third year in Lidge’s career, teammate Roy Oswalt mentioned that there had been an evolution in the challenge of pitching to Pujols — the holes that you could attack as a pitcher were no longer available.
“All of a sudden, it started to feel like he knew what you were going to throw before you did,” Lidge recalled. “You felt like you had to be perfect … He had so much plate coverage, whether you’re throwing a 97 mph fastball or a slider down and away, you had to be perfect.”
Lidge says that this is the part of Pujols that is often not fully comprehended. He was strong, had great hands, great eyes — but he also could anticipate what the pitcher was going to try to do against him with a high degree of success. “If there was one thing I know from facing him, it’s that he’s going to win the chess match far more than he should,” said Lidge. And if the pitcher was able to execute a big-breaking pitch, Lidge said, Pujols was adept at fouling the ball off to continue the at-bat. Or, if the pitcher was doing something with his glove or his hands to tip off the identity of the next pitch, “he’d be the first guy to see it,” said Lidge.
The Astros bore in on the National League title in 2005, leading Game 5 of the NL Championship Series, and Lidge, the Houston closer, was called on to finish off the Cardinals. With two outs and two on, Lidge spun a good slider and Pujols chased it.
“I tried to come back with [the slider],” Lidge recalled. “I made a mistake” — the ball was down in the strike zone, but over the heart of the plate — “and it wasn’t super surprising that he didn’t make a mistake.” Pujols rocketed a three-run homer over the train tracks in left field in Houston, the ball loudly crashing against the protective glass.
Lidge bumped into Pujols from time to time after that home run, saying hello at All-Star Games, without talking about the home run. What he feels about Pujols now is that he was a hitter “hard-wired” for greatness, physically and mentally.
Greg Maddux: ‘He hit it over frickin’ Waveland Avenue’
“The first time I faced him, I threw him a changeup that he missed by 2 or 3 feet. And I’m going, ‘Wow, OK, maybe we got something here.’ Next time up, I threw the exact same changeup and he hit it over frickin’ Waveland Avenue. And I went, ‘Oh s—, maybe they have something here. This guy is pretty good.’
“If you walked him or gave up a single, you won the AB. He covered the middle of the plate as well as anyone. My game plan with him was to give up a single or less.”
Glendon Rusch: ‘He was the best slugger I faced’
“He was the best slugger I faced that could do the most damage in the most different ways. He could hit a homer off any pitch — a mistake in or off-speed out over the plate the other way, he could do it all. When I was facing him, he was in his prime-prime. He’s the guy that you had to be careful of unless you had a big lead or were down by a bunch because he would take you deep at any time. He was a threat if you made a mistake and if you didn’t make a mistake.”
Ryan Dempster: ‘There is no … more of an expert on how to give up home runs to Albert Pujols than me’
“There is no one out here that’s more of an expert on how to give up home runs to Albert Pujols than me.
“People have talent, people work hard, people are prepared. He coincided with all three probably better than anyone I ever watched or faced. Always diligent about his cage work, his BP, everything. So when the game started, he was like playing a video game with a cheat code. He knew what pitch was coming. If a pitcher fell into patterns, he would take advantage of it. He never gave at-bats away. It could be 10-0 in the ninth and he would give you the same AB as if it were tied. He could hit any pitch out that wasn’t executed, and he could hit the pitches that were executed.
“This has been a perfect storm. They put him in a position to have success against all these lefties, then he goes to the HR Derby and gets locked in. And now he’s feeling really good, so when he faces righties, it’s just carrying over.”
Mike Hampton: ‘I should be thankful … that he didn’t go deep’
The Cardinals’ Opening Day lineup in 2001 was stacked with big names such as Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds, sluggers who most concerned Mike Hampton. He didn’t know anything about the guy plugged into the sixth spot in the lineup that day, a rookie left fielder named Albert Pujols, who was set to play in his first game.
Hampton recalls that there really wasn’t a lot of information available on Pujols, so the left-handed Hampton figured he’d pitch Pujols the same way he had pitched other right-handed batters. “Sink it away, cut it in,” said Hampton, whose start that day was his first with the Rockies after signing a $121 million deal. He shut out the Cardinals for 8⅓ scoreless innings. “It went down pretty quickly after that,” Hampton joked of his short, rough tenure with Colorado.
One of the five hits that Hampton scattered was a seventh-inning single to Pujols, the first of Pujols’ career. “I should be thankful that it was a single through the 6-hole,” he said, “and that he didn’t go deep.”
Alex Rodriguez: ‘It was like he was a mad scientist’
Albert Pujols inhabited the NL Central in the first half of his career, and it was because of that history that Alex Rodriguez called Pujols about a pitcher from that division. Rodriguez figured that Pujols would have some observations about the pitcher, about his repertoire. “Usually, that kind of conversation will go on for five minutes,” Rodriguez. “Forty-five minutes — it went on for 45 minutes. He’s telling me about the movement of his curveball, his sinker, his passion coming out of the phone. He gave me the greatest scouting report I’ve ever had.
“If the count is 0-0, he’ll throw you a curveball,” Pujols told Rodriguez. “If he gets ahead in the count, he’ll throw two fastballs inside — but because he wants to get to his changeup.”
Rodriguez thinks back on that conversation now and says, “It was like he was a mad scientist. He was walking me through at-bats with very specific information on what the guy was going to do.
After the game, in which he recalls hitting a double off the pitcher — “The accuracy of the scouting report was incredible,” Rodriguez remembered — Pujols texted Rodriguez immediately. “He wanted to know everything about how it went, what he threw to me, the counts, everything … It’s not only about what the pitcher throws, but he wants to be a chess player, too.”
Dale Scott: ‘He was there to do a job’
There were days when Albert Pujols would pause briefly, as he ran or off the field in between innings, and compliment longtime umpire Dale Scott on his work calling balls and strikes in the previous game. “It might be a situation where he catches your eye and says, ‘Good job,'” said Scott. “But it didn’t happen every time.” Yes, there were days when Pujols wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t say anything, leaving Scott to wonder if he had struggled with his strike zone.
This was all in keeping with Pujols’ intensity, says Scott, who shared fields with Pujols over the past 17 seasons of the umpire’s career. He was gregarious, Scott said, offered a smile and a greeting when he stepped to the plate, “but he was there to do a job.” Pujols didn’t complain out loud about ball-or-strike calls, but if he had an issue with the home plate umpire, he would be passive aggressive — maybe a quick grimace, maybe a step back out of the batter’s box. “If the bench saw it, then they would react to it, or the fans,” said Scott. “He reminded me of Cal Ripken. He was serious … The aura around him was that he was there to work.”
Joey Votto: ‘I’ll never be at that level. I’ll never be that guy’
Votto has a crystal-clear memory of the moment when he recognized the preeminence of Pujols, an at-bat that distinguished him from other hitters — including Votto. “It stands out to me in how it represents how skilled he was, and is,” Votto said.
The Reds first baseman was in his second full season in the big leagues and Cincinnati was hosting St. Louis. The Reds had a 3-0 lead, and Dusty Baker summoned longtime reliever David Weathers from the bullpen.
“Nothing rattled Weathers,” Votto recalled. “He had two-pitch command, a running fastball [inside to right-handed hitters]. He knew how to manage big situations. You knew there was either going to be a ball in play or a strikeout.”
As Votto watched Pujols launch the ball toward left-center field, a monstrous grand slam in a pivotal situation, he remembered thinking: That’s a really good swing — a really good swing on a pitch that looked to be in a good spot.
When he watched the at-bat again on video to see if his initial reaction was correct, Votto saw Weathers attempt to work off the outside edge of the plate, with a backdoor sinker — the ball starting out of the strike zone, zipping toward the left-handed hitter’s batter’s box, before veering back toward the plate. It was a good pitch by Weathers, a good spot, because right-handed hitters had to be cognizant of how his sinker would cut inside. But somehow Pujols had the acumen, the balance and the swing to get to the pitch — and blast it into the seats well beyond left-center field.
“I already viewed him at such a high level,” said Votto. “But after watching it, I realized: I’ll never be at that level. I’ll never be that guy.”