These two all-time greats have always been compared to each other back in their St. Louis years. McGwire’s last year, 2001, was also the first year of Albert Pujols’ dominant 11-year stretch. In 2001, the great “Big Mac” was trying his hardest to put an exclamation point at the end of his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career. In 2001, Albert Pujols, making the Cards right out of spring training, was the talk of the town. The Rookie-of-the-Year also finished fourth in the MVP voting, putting up an otherworldly 153 OPS in an era of sky-high offense and turbocharged home run balls.
2001 was a tough year for McGwire. The first-baseman (Pujols played left the field for most of the season) hit a meager .187 and a mediocre 105 OPS, albeit with an astounding 29 home runs (how???). The number of home runs despite the low number of doubles and base hits overall summarizes, in many ways, McGwire’s career. Without the PEDs, McGwire’s numbers would arguably be nowhere close to what they are. Many of those 29 home runs were hit, no doubt, because of PEDs. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that hitting almost 30 home runs while batting below the Mendoza line is borderline impossible. While he was not able to consistently hit the ball, a stunning percentage of his fly balls went out of the yard for home runs. That is not natural. That is not baseball.
Albert Pujols’ career is not tainted like that of McGwire’s. While his numbers have dropped significantly over the last five years in Angels’ uniform, Pujols continues to hit for solid power (23 home runs) and drives in the third-most runs in the American League. Part of that is because of the estimable Mike Trout, whose overall game is on par, if not superior, to Pujols’ prime production. But part of that is also because that Albert Pujols is an utterly talented baseball player that refuses to stop working and continues to grind out at-bats as a bona fide Hall-of-Famer and the best player of our generation.
Mark McGwire’s end, in my opinion, is very similar to that of Pujols’. Part of it is saddening. Albert Pujols’ name belongs up there in the top ten best hitters of all time, regardless of era. The fact that he did everything clean and was never slapped with any allegations makes his numbers even more impressive. However, Pujols today plays on a last-place Angels team with no chance whatsoever to play in the postseason. His days contending for the MVP are long gone, and while David Ortiz is still putting on a mind-blowing campaign at age 40, Albert Pujols more often than not looks lost and worn-down at the plate, frequently struggling to put the bat on the ball with authority and flailing out of the zone.
On Saturday night at Angel Stadium, Albert Pujols belts a 96-mph fastball off of Yankees’ closer Dellin Betances for the 583rd home run of his career. That is the 10th all-time, tying him with Mark McGwire, his long time friend and former hitting coach with the Saint Louis squad. As he circles the bases, the half-full Angel stadium erupts, to the best of its ability, in cheers. Getting into one of the most exclusive, though tainted club (four of the eleven members of the top-ten HR club have serious PED ties) should be front-page news. It should be celebrated the way Ichiro’s 3000th hit was. It should be blown out of proportions the way Derek Jeter’s final walk-off hit at Yankee Stadium was. It should be one of the top moments of the 2016 season, on par with Bartolo Colon’s first career home run.
Instead, Pujols’ 583rd home run attracted next to no attention and received less media coverage than Alex Rodriguez’s final game as a Yankee.
A-Rod admittedly got what he deserved after years of deceitful shenanigans and immoral practices. But Pujols hasn’t done anything. Nothing.
All he’s done is averaged 27 bombs over the past five years with 93 RBIs and a 122 OPS. All he’s done is offered well-needed protection for Mike Trout as he continues his meteoric ascent to greatness.
All Albert Pujols has done is showed up to the post every day, giving 100% of his ability and helping the Angels win ball games. He might not have the flashy flair of David Ortiz and Bryce Harper, but since when is old-school baseball a crime? Regardless of his lack of media coverage today, Albert Pujols is one of the best baseball players of all time.
McGwire, like Pujols, has also struggled a fair amount at the end of his career, even more so than Pujols has. However, when Big Mac today looks at the Machine, the behemoth who took over his job in St. Louis and forced him to retire, does he not see a chillingly similar end to his long-time friend?