The walk from the apartment house where his family lived to the East Santo Domingo ballpark where the bigger boys and grown men played was maybe a mile, and if that afternoon was like the others it was all an 11-year-old Albert Pujols could do not to run that mile.
Already he knew he was going to be a ballplayer like his idol, Julio Cesar Franco, who had the most beautiful swing he’d ever seen. He was going to have to work and he was going to have to grow, to get bigger and stronger, and maybe that was going to take time. Albert Pujols was not impatient. It would come.
From his position at shortstop, near the middle of that grown-up ballpark, he would watch the baseballs soar overhead and turn to see them carry over the fence and disappear into the trees. He would see the spin on those baseballs, and sometimes even hear the spin, the hiss that followed the aluminum clang that always livened the boys and men in the dugouts at Los Trinitarios.
On that particular afternoon he stood in the batter’s box, waving his aluminum bat, and a boy his age who was right-handed but whose name he has forgotten threw a pitch, what might’ve passed for a fastball, and an 11-year-old Albert Pujols swung with all his might. He didn’t feel any bigger, any more powerful, any smarter, than he had the day before.
This swing was different, however. The sound was different. The contact was so perfect. The baseball shot toward left-center field, high and beautiful, and Albert Pujols knew what he’d done though he’d never done it before. That baseball was going to land in the trees, and he had just hit the first home run of his life.
The game ended and Albert ran that mile home. He climbed the stairs to the third floor, to the three-bedroom apartment. There he waited for his father to return from his job painting other people’s houses.
I did it, he would tell his father. I homered. Straight over the fence.
Very good, Papo, his father would say. I am proud of you. I knew you could.
And then Albert would wait for the next day to come, so he could do it again. And again. And again.
“That day,” Albert said so many years later, “it was just time.”
On Saturday night in Anaheim, a 37-year-old Albert Pujols hit the 600th home run of his major league career, a 1-2 pitch in the bottom of the fourth against Minnesota’s Ervin Santana for a grand slam. It was, again, time.
Eight others have hit as many. Their names you know — Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome and Sammy Sosa. And now Pujols, 16 years after his first as a big leaguer, a two-run home run off Arizona’s Armando Reynoso that began Pujols’ climb, so steady, so relentless, he became The Machine.
“It’s a big number,” Pujols said. “It’s going to be something that sinks in two weeks after it happens. I can’t really have the right answer right now.”
He tried anyway, after dragging his finger along the list of men who’d reached 600 home runs ahead of him.
“It’s a special place,” he said. “Out of 20 thousand and some people that played this game, to be the ninth guy to accomplish that. That says it right there. That’ll tell you everything. That’ll tell you how hard this game is. How blessed my career has been.
“It’s just hard for me to start thinking about when I’m playing the game, because I don’t want that focus that I have on winning to be distracted by trying to hit homers now. You know what I’m saying? That’s how it’s always been. Maybe because I’m like this, I have the success that I have. Like, I wish sometimes I can take this game as fun and not take it so serious. But I can’t. Freakin’. Do. It. You know? I can’t. I care too much. That’s hard for me to try to be somebody that I’m not.”
Seven times in his career he would hit at least 40 home runs in a season. Fourteen times he would hit at least 30. He remains capable. While Pujols is most proud of a game that has seen him win a batting title and hit .308 over 17 years, and drive in 1859 runs, an RBI total that ranks in the top 15 all-time, and win two Gold Glove awards, a game so complete he’d won three MVP trophies and is often lauded as one of the hardest working players in the league, the home runs also came in great numbers.
In the days before 600 arrived on Saturday, Pujols attempted to describe them all, from the first ball that jumped off his bat to the last, what made them the same and what made them different, and how exactly they do come.
“It’s just a different feeling,” he said. “When you make contact with a ball like that, it’s just so pure. You know sometimes you hit a ball good but you know, ehhh, not quite. But when you hit a ball solid, you know there’s no doubt that ball is going to go out, it’s a pretty good feeling. It’s a different sound. It’s a different touch in your bat.”
He said he’d never really tried to hit a ball over the fence in a game. Occasionally in batting practice. But never when it mattered.
Plenty of times he homered anyway, usually, he said, “Because I put a good swing on it. I’m right on time. I’m strong. I have quick hands. I have good balance at the plate. A lot of great things have to happen.
“It’s easy for you to say I’m going to try to put a good swing every time. … To tell myself I’m going to put four good swings tonight, you can control that. To try to put a good swing. It isn’t going to look pretty every night. But you might do it three out of ten.”
“So,” he said, “you stay back, trust your hands. It’s knowing you can freakin’ hit, not worrying about what the numbers are saying out there, just knowing that you can hit.”
It worked then, way back then. It works now, if not quite as often as it once did.
And it leaves him with the greatest home run hitters of all time, and then so much more than that.
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