500-HR club not what it used to be, but Pujols again proves his greatness

Albert Pujols gets a Gatorade bath after becoming the 26th member of the 500-homer club.

Tommy Gilligan/Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Five hundred home runs is a tremendous accomplishment, one that even the most jaded fans can appreciate. But to be sure, the number has lost some of its magic in recent years.

Before 1999, only 15 players had hit 500 homers. Since then, 10 had reached that number, and on Tuesday night Albert Pujols became the 11th, hitting two home runs at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

Yet the celebration, if you even want to call it that, was muted.

Milestone fatigue has set in, a natural reaction to the inflated offense of the late 1990s and 2000s. And while baseball has the toughest drug-testing program in professional sports, many fans no longer trust what they see.

A number of the recent members of the 500-homer club — Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, et al — have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. The taint, fairly or not, extends to the entire sport.

Pujols, to our knowledge, is clean. In fact, he recently sued former major-league slugger Jack Clark for defamation after Clark said that Pujols used PEDs. Pujols dropped the lawsuit after Clark apologized.

His stance was nothing new; Pujols consistently has denied using PEDs. In 2009 his wife, Dee Dee, told Sports Illustrated, "€œIf he ever got involved in that (steroid) stuff, I would be the first one to kill him."€

THE 500-HOME RUN CLUB

Fans will believe what they want to believe; enduring cynicism is one of the many unfortunate legacies of the Steroid Era. Pujols, though, is not simply defined by his power, even though, at 34 years and 96 days, he is the third youngest to reach 500 homers.

This is a great hitter who happens to hit home runs. A guy with a .321 lifetime average who only led his league in homers twice.

In fact, only three members of the 500-homer club — Ted Williams (.344), Babe Ruth (.342) and Jimmie Foxx (.325) — had higher career batting averages than Pujols’ current mark, according to STATS LLC.

Pujols, though, is the first player to hit Nos. 499 and 500 in the same game, putting an exclamation point on his stunning resurgence in the first month of the new season.

He played in only 99 games last season, producing career lows in virtually every offensive category as he dealt with a painful case of plantar fasciitis. But now, he again resembles the Pujols of old, leading the majors with eight homers. His OPS is .956, not far below his career mark even though his on-base percentage is well below his career norm.

He is back, back in a big way. If nothing else, 500 is a loud reminder to all of us. Albert Pujols isn’t fading just yet. He remains one of the best hitters we’ve ever seen.