Albert Pujols and the State of Baseball

It’s the most devastating injury of the year. Devastating to Cardinals fans, devastating to fantasy baseball players, devastating to Bonds-haters across the country. King Albert is out, all due to a “broad, thin, and irregularly quadrilateral” (thank you, Wikipedia) muscle, the obliquus externus abdominis. Try saying that three times fast.

Prior to tearing his right oblique muscle (located on the sides of the abdomen), Pujols had played in 53 of the Cardinals’ 54 games and hit 25 home runs with 65 runs. He was on pace for 75 home runs and 195 runs batted in, both of which would be major league records. That quest is realistically over.

According to Will Carroll, “expect the Cards to be ultraconservative with this injury, keeping Pujols on the shelf beyond the minimum, but less than the oft-quoted six weeks.” So maybe King Albert is out for a month; to hit 74 home runs (and break the record), he’d need to hit 49 home runs in about 80 games, about 33% more than he has so far in 2006, and 128% more than he has in his career. In other words, fat chance.

But not all is lost for the Cardinals. Pujols’ replacement for the time being is Jim Edmonds, who while no King Albert, isn’t bad himself. Over the course of just a month, the Cardinals aren’t going to lose more than a win because of Pujols’ absence, and even that might be exorbitant. A win is nothing to scoff at, but it’s unlikely to make a difference in the standings at the end of the season.

Fantasy players are going to be hurt by this injury a little more than the Cardinals, but if my fantasy league this year has proven anything, it’s that injuries can be overcome. I’m so far down in the standings that I’ve given up, while the guy who drafted Derrek Lee with his first pick and also has Jorge Posada and Julio Lugo, is in third and competing.

Even if he would have sustained his torrid pace, King Albert will still only lose you a dozen home runs, 25 runs, and 30 RBIs. Some of those will obviously be replaced by whomever you substitute, so it’s really not that big a deal. Certainly, this injury will not make or break a fantasy team.

So then why is it front-page news? Why is there so much noise about this broad, thin, and irregularly quadrilateral torn muscle? Seventy-three, that’s why.

King Albert is the prototypical All-American athlete. He’s congenial, he’s a hard worker, he’s always been successful as a major leaguer, he’s graceful in the field, and oh yeah, he can smack the heck out of a baseball. At 26, Pujols already has 226 home runs and 1,039 hits on his career. By the end of the season, he’ll probably be more than a third of the way to Hank Aaron, and certainly more than a third of the way to 3,000. At 26.

We all love Pujols, and why not? Here’s a man who has been shifted from left field to third base to first, and has done so quietly and with dignity, playing plus defense at all positions. (He’s probably the best defensive first baseman in the league right now.) Despite all the moves, Pujols has never stopped hitting: he’s put up a .950+ OPS every year in the major leagues. And he’s done it all so humbly, he has often gone unnoticed in the past.

We all love Pujols. That’s why the media breathed such a heavy sigh of relief when they could finally give him the MVP last year. After four consecutive top-four finishes, King Albert finally got the trophy—with his worst season in three years. It’s not that he didn’t deserve it—though Lee may have had the stronger argument—it’s that the award was Pujols’ to take. His win was an afterthought; once Barry Bonds was out for most of the season, the MVP belonged to King Albert, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Ah, Barry. If Pujols is a media darling, the Bonds is the media devil. They hate him, we hate him, everyone hates him. Bonds is cold, aloof, and probably a cheater. He’s everything we love to hate. He’s the anti-Pujols, and maybe, just maybe, the Antichrist. Some might tell you those two are the same thing.

Bonds is everything Pujols is not: Barry hawks autographs on his website; Pujols promotes his charity on his. Bonds attacks his critics and tries to prove his superiority at every turn; Pujols just laughs and moves on when asked if he’s actually older than he claims. Bonds is a cheater in sports and in life; King Albert is clean as a whistle. And yet, Pujols isn’t quite the king without Barry.

Bonds is the ying to Pujols’ yang. Without Barry, Pujols is no different from Alex Rodriguez or Vladimir Guerrero or Frank Thomaswere—a young star with a lot of potential and a lot of power. Pujols may be good, and he may be young, but six players had more home runs than him at (and including) age 25, and none are in the top five in career homers. Pujols isn’t in the top-10 in hits, total bases, runs batted in, runs scored, or any other meaningful counting stat (except for home runs) at his age. So why, then, do we see him as a savior? Why not A-Rod, who isn’t even 30 yet, and will probably hit 500 home runs midway through next year? A-Rod, who not only is in the top-10 for all those counting statistics at his age, but in the top-three as well. Why not A-Rod?

He has no Barry. Rodriguez started his career in baseball’s ultimate era of naiveté, when no one was guilty of anything, and home runs were magically flying out of the park more than ever before. A-Rod has never been playing against anyone; he has no competition or enemy to defeat. Pujols, on the other hand, has a nemesis, and his name is Barry.

Bonds makes Pujols. When Bonds was winning all those MVPs, we really just wanted to give them to Albert. Barry was too good not to vote for and too unpleasant to see win. Bonds kept losing MVP votes, and King Albert kept gaining. Writers were still voting mind over heart, but the fight grew more intense with each season as the steroid whispers around the Giants slugger grew louder and Bonds grew more and more unbearable.

And then it happened. It finally happened. Bonds cracked. Well, it was just his knee that felt apart, but it incapacitated him nonetheless. Pujols finally had it, he finally had a shot to take over the MVP award that everyone wanted to but couldn’t give him the past few years. All he had to do was seize the moment, and King Albert responded—he responded with his same consistent performance. He didn’t make any leap—as if he could go much higher—but he did enough. He justified the selection. He let us reconcile our hearts with our minds. And that’s all we asked.

The legend grew bigger. A 25-year-old MVP: almost unheard of. The last time that happened in the National League was 1990, when a slim rookie from Pittsburgh by the name of Barry Bonds won the first of his seven MVPs. Fifteen years later, King Albert was here to take his crown.

The MVP only fueled him. Pujols came out on a tear: 14 home runs in his first month alone, six in one four-day span. And we rooted for him. We rooted hard, and we cheered loudly. All of us: the fans, the media, the players. But we didn’t root for Pujols—the quiet, stoic righty with a sweet swing and a quiet demeanor. No, we rooted against Bonds—the a**hole, the liar, the cheater.

We ignored that after two months, Pujols was on pace to hit *only* 75 home runs, which meant that he would have to keep up his much-better-than-expected pace to have a chance at the record. We ignored that all statistical evidence pointed to his chances at Bonds’ mark being slim and none. Once again, we were thinking with our hearts and not our minds.

In 2001, Luis Gonzalez hit 13 home runs in April, only one fewer than Pujols this year. How much talk was there about him breaking the home run record? How much excitement? Exactly. We liked that record, we liked that record holder. Mark McGwire captivated a whole nation in 1998 when he raced Sammy Sosa for the ultimate record, and we were happy to live with that past 2001. But we don’t want to live with this.

We don’t want a tainted record. We don’t want an asterisk. We don’t want Barry Bonds.

King Albert provided the perfect alternative. He’s likable. He’s honest. He’s reliable. He would make for a perfect record holder. He would let us put the steroid era behind us, even if it really isn’t. He would let us pull the wool back over our eyes, and relax against its comforts. He would let us just watch baseball, and forget about steroids. That’s what we wanted, and let the record show it.

But we won’t get it, not this year. We have to live with the mess that we helped foster. We have to live with what is our fault as fans, for cheering on oversized home run hitters while ignoring the fact that, hey, it just isn’t natural. We can’t plead ignorance, when all we really want is bliss. We want the innocence and the excitement of playing Little League or pickup baseball when we were kids. The amazement we experienced the first time we hit the ball a long way. The love for the game that we see in Pujols, magnified by the contempt for his fans that we see in Bonds.

But that broad, thin, and irregularly quadrilateral muscle just won’t let us have it. We don’t have to worry about Pujols’ injury as fantasy players or as Cardinals fans. But we will mourn it as baseball fans, because the sport we love is not going to be saved by one man. King Albert’s good will not triumph over Barry’s evil. The last time we trusted a man to save the game, Mark McGwire failed us. Let’s not fall into that trap again.

So forget about Pujols. Forget about the oblique. Forget about the home run record. Remember baseball. Remember the $7 hot dogs and cheering crowd at the crack of a bat. Remember everything we love about the sport, and ask, “what happened?”

There are no easy fixes here, and thankfully, Pujols is no longer a threat to make us think otherwise. It’s a long, hard road that demands fundamental changes. It’s a path we need to take, lest baseball become a sport of cheaters and liars.

Addendum

This article was meant to run Friday, June 9. It was written before Deadspin reported that Albert Pujols’ long-time personal trainer was allegedly named in the Jason Grimsley affidavit as someone who told Grimsley where the pitcher could obtain HGH. In other words, Pujols is very strongly connected to the drug, and was quite possibly using it. For now, this is all speculation, but somehow, I still feel it validates what I wrote.

We were looking at Pujols as a hero because of the villain that Bonds has become. We needed someone greater than Bonds to defeat him, to be better. Pujols was that guy. But hero-worship is dangerous, a double-edged sword. If Pujols has indeed used HGH, that news would be devastating, not because a star cheated, but because Pujols, Pujols the anti-Bonds, cheated. We’ll have no more heroes to turn to, and I’m afraid that will mean that many will simply turn away from baseball for good.

The fact is, whether or not Pujols has used any performance enchancers, the Grimsley affidavit makes it clear that the sport needs to be cleaned up. Baseball has a serious problem, and a serious scandal, on its hands, and we, as fans, should not be distracted by shiny trinkets or 450-foot blasts. We need to get serious about this, and see baseball become the glorious game that we all envision it to be, and that it never has been.

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