Albert Pujols has never been about numbers. Not home runs, not batting averages, not base hits, not RBI.
Ask him. If you dare — and if you survive the annoyed glare he is sure to return — he will insist he is about one thing, and one thing only.
Winning. That’s why he plays the game, because the ultimate reward is not in personal achievement but in hoisting a World Series trophy.
Even so, Pujols allowed himself a self-satisfactory smile in the Angels dugout Tuesday night in Washington after hitting his 500th home run, a rarefied air that only 25 players have previously reached.
He deserved it. Pujols, the best hitter of his generation, has put so many smiles on the faces of Angels and St. Louis Cardinals fans, he had every reason to grin at what he had just done.
In his third season with the Angels, Pujols is finally delivering what the team hoped to see when it signed him to a 10-year, $240-million contract before the 2012 season. His first year was marked by a horrendously slow start, resulting in career lows in home runs (30) and batting average (.285).
Last season, he was derailed by a case of plantar fascia in his left foot in July, reducing him to 99 games, 17 home runs and a .258 average.
Was age creeping up on him? Was he breaking down? A case could be made for either suggestion, but Pujols has officially put them both to rest.
In becoming the first player to hit his 499th and 500th home runs in the same game, Pujols is proving there is still life left in his bat. At 34 years and 96 days old, he is the third youngest player to reach the 500 milestone, behind only Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx.
Thirteen years after hitting his first homer – a shot off Arizona’s Armando Reynoso on April 6, 2001 — he is as imposing and powerful as ever.
And still, he insists he is not a home run hitter. Like most great offensive players, Pujols calls himself a line-drive hitter. If he weren’t, how could own a career .320 batting average? He is only the ninth player in major league history to total 500 homers with a batting average of .300 or higher, an undeniable hallmark of a dynamic hitter.
He is the only player ever to hit 30 or more home runs in his first 12 seasons, a streak that ended last year because of his foot injury. But with a major-league-leading eight already this season, he is on track to hit 30 again.
Not bad for a line-drive hitter. But for Pujols, who won two World Series titles in St. Louis, the only satisfaction will come if he can bring a championship to Anaheim.