In 2006, the inaugural World Baseball Classic kept many major league players out of their normal spring training routine. You probably remember that there was considerable hand wringing over the potential for injured pitchers in that new format. While fewer people worried how the tournament might affect hitters’ preparation, it was still something to consider since there were no guarantees for a set number of at-bats for each player.
St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols didn’t spend much time on the bench for his Dominican Republic team, but still saw only 20 or so at-bats spread over 17 days, as opposed to the consistent regimen in a controlled environment seen in the Cardinals camp every preseason.
But, in the end, it didn’t matter, because when Pujols finally made it to spring training games, he adjusted after a week or so. He even hit three home runs in his last game before the regular season. That proved to be a precursor for a historic April home run binge.
On Opening Day, Pujols hit two home runs against the Philadelphia Phillies. One week later, on April 10, the Cardinals opened the third version of Busch Stadium. Pujols christened the $365 million park by hitting the first ever home run in “New Busch.” Six days later, Pujols hit three homers, the third of which was a walk-off that beat the Cincinnati Reds and put a bow on the first homestand in St. Louis’ new park.
When asked after the game to compare the performance to his other three-homer game (back in 2004 against the Cubs), Pujols said, “I hit three in spring training and I don’t even care. Hopefully, tomorrow I hit three more and forget about today.”
Pujols didn’t hit three the next day, but he made history when he hit a bomb in the first inning against the Pirates. The blast off of Pittsburgh’s Paul Maholm made Pujols the 35th player in MLB history to homer four times in four at-bats. It also marked his ninth home run in only the 13th game of the year. Mike Schmidt is the only player to hit more home runs in a season’s first 13 games. Schmidt blasted 11 in 13 games to start the 1976 season.
Amidst Pujols’ historic run to start the 2006 season, a previously nondescript player for the Detroit Tigers named Chris Shelton was matching “The Machine” homer for homer. Through the season’s first two weeks, Shelton hit a home run every 5.7 at-bats and was on pace to surpass former Tiger Rudy York.
York held the American League record for most home runs in any month, hitting 18 in August, all the way back in 1937. But Shelton’s magic would wane, as he only hit one more home run during the opening month of the season. He hit one in the entire month of May, and only totaled 16 for the season after his unlikely start.
Such was not the fate of Pujols. He kept up the torrid pace and hit his 11th home run of April on the 21st, against the Chicago Cubs. That home run had the added significance of being Pujols’ 1,000th hit of his career. It took him 3,003 at-bats to reach the milestone, which were only 26 more than it took Ichiro Suzuki. Suzuki is the fastest active player to the milestone, and it’s a sign of Pujols’ greatness, given how much more power he has, that he was so close to matching Suzuki’s pace.
On April 29th, Pujols hit his 14th home run of April and passed Ken Griffey, Jr. and (1997) and Luis Gonzalez (2001) for the most ever in the season’s first month. The home run broke a 1-1 tie in the 8th inning and gave the Cardinals the win over the Washington Nationals, a victory which set a St. Louis franchise record of 16 wins for the month, one they would pad the next day by beating the Nationals again.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Bernie Miklasz, caught up in the incredible performance, likened Pujols’ exploits to Cardinal great Stan Musial. Miklasz wrote, “I won’t get tired of writing about the guy; I just hope you’re not tired of reading about Pujols.”
It has been five years since Pujols’ historic April, and suffice it to say no one is tired of reading about the slugger. As this season wears on, there will be many more articles written about him, even if he fails to set new home run records. His contract is up following this season, and he stands to cash in on the remarkable numbers he’s put up so far in his career. The prospect of him playing for a different team next season will surely cause a lot more ink to spill.
While Pujols was setting a new record for April of 2006, Alex Rodriguez had already cashed in on his own immense talent. By the next season, A-Rod was eyeing the choice of opting out of his record $252 million deal and becoming a free agent again. It was a risky proposition, suggested by agent Scott Boras, because Rodriguez still had about $70 million guaranteed remaining on his contract.
He was also coming off a poor end to the previous season with the Yankees. With a chance to face Pujols and the Cardinals in the World Series, Rodriguez disappointed and suffered the embarrassment of batting in the eighth spot in the lineup against the Detroit Tigers in the American League playoffs after starting the postseason 1-for-11.
But the motivation of proving himself, as well as holding leverage over the Yankees, may have been what spurred Rodriguez to get off to a blistering start to the 2007 season. April had offered hope of a clean slate, and Rodriguez took advantage with a home run in the season opener at home against Tampa Bay.
On April 7th he hit two more against Baltimore, the second of which was a walk-off grand slam. The heroic hit started a stretch of four games with a home run. Rodriguez set a Yankee record by hitting five homers in the first six games of the season, then another team record with his sixth in seven games the next night.
When pressed, Rodriguez kept citing how he was “in a real calm place.” As usual with A-Rod, controversy was always close at hand, so this was not uncharted territory.
In addition to his looming contract talks, Rodriguez and Yankee captain Derek Jeter found themselves in a typically overblown New York paper controversy. So, since the two had “cleared the air” around the start of the season, that was also getting plenty of traction as the impetus for Rodriguez’s fast start.
Yet another theory held that Rodriguez’s place in a powerful Yankee lineup kept opposing managers from pitching around him whenever he came up in a big spot, which gave him more opportunities to bash.
That seemed true enough when Rodriguez’s 10th home run of April, only 14 games into the season, capped a six-run rally in the ninth inning to beat Cleveland. First base was open when he came to bat with the game on the line, but with Jason Giambi following, the Indians chose to pitch to Rodriguez.
The next day, he hit two more against rival Boston and bookended another four-straight-game stretch of hitting a home run. While those two homers weren’t enough to beat the Red Sox, they were enough to tie Schmidt (that ’76 season again) for fastest player to hit 12 homers (15 games).
When asked if he could keep the pace all season, Rodrguez said, “Man, I don’t know. All year. I don’t know about all year.”
He did keep the pace a few more games, hitting two more home runs against Tampa Bay to tie the MLB record that Pujols had just set the year before. But, he couldn’t keep it up for the whole month, let alone the whole year.
He went homerless the last few days of the month and finished as the American League record holder, and tied with Pujols for the MLB record. That’s not to say he went the way of Chris Shelton the year before, as Rodriguez still finished 2007 with 54 home runs and a career-high 156 RBI.
The hot start for Rodriguez had Yankee fans hoping he could break Barry Bonds‘ single-season home run record of 73. Many reporters were eager to peg Rodriguez as a potential savior for baseball, a man that could right the wrongs of the steroid era by becoming a home run hero without the stain of performance enhancing drugs on the back of his baseball card.
There was talk that Rodriguez would “launder” the single-season record if he held it instead of Bonds. Former players like Jim Kaat felt Rodriguez could “legitimize” the career record, as well, by someday reaching 800 homers without drug implications.
Through the clear lens provided by hindsight, we now know that it was a bad idea to hang our hopes on Rodriguez. But, as much as we were in the dark concerning his PED use, no one was oblivious to the huge salary that also made many resent him.
And now we are left with Pujols. Many say the same things about him in regard to erasing Bonds’ name from the record books as they did about Rodriguez just a few years ago. An example comes from Pujols’ record April of 2006, when Tim Marchman wrote that the Cardinal slugger was “…uniquely equipped to bear that burden.”
Marchman felt Pujols can become the popular face of baseball by being clear of controversy, playing in America’s heartland, and by avoiding the notoriety of being the highest-paid player in the game.
Unlike Rodriguez, Pujols has never been linked to PEDs. Unlike Rodriguez, Pujols has played for the same team his whole career. And, up until now, he has not been the highest-paid player in the sport.
But, just like Rodriguez, his big runs at home run history make him the next hope for a “clean” champion. While he’s still in the clear for PED use, his pending free-agent status may leave him holding the richest contract in the history of the sport. As we’ve learned from “A-Rod,” such a burden can be difficult to overcome, maybe even for the best hitter in the game.
*This season, Nelson Cruz homered in his first four games of the year. He now stands at five and would need 10 more this month to be the new all-time home run leader for April.
References & Resources
The New York Times, The New York Sun, The New York Daily News, The Star-Ledger (NJ), The Times Union (Albany, NY), The Record (NJ), The New York Post, The Post-Tribune (IN), The Charleston Gazette (WV), The Anniston Star (AL), The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer