ALBERT AND THE MAN
It's time for some perspective on Albert Pujols. The St. Louis Cardinals' prodigiously talented slugger Ñ only 23 years old Ñ is breaking the kind of records that are measured not in generations, but lifetimes. Roger Maris' iconic home run record stood for 37 years and the baseball world rejoiced when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd long ball in 1998. When Pujols hit .300, with 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 100 runs scored as a rookie in 2001, it had been 51 years since a player had broken into the big leagues with such volume.
When Pujols duplicated the feat in 2002, he became the first player in the history of the game to do so in his first two seasons. (Having already pulled the trick this year, perhaps this impressive stat-line needs to be christened a "Fat Albert."As in, "Wow, I think Jeter has a legitimate shot at his first Fat Albert this season!")
When you've done something that can't be claimed by Cobb, Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle, Aaron, or even Barry Bonds . . . well, you earn the kind of cover story that recently ran in ESPN the Magazine
in which a discussion on Pujols' abilities is carried out between a mortal scribe and, yes, God. So where do we draw a basis for comparison?
Considering Pujols is the first Cardinal to drill 40 doubles in three consecutive seasons since the great Stan Musial did so from 1952 to 1954, why not reach for the top, the greatest Cardinal of them all, a man with not one, but two statues outside Busch Stadium? (Local fans will remember Pujols wore Musial's sacred number 6 when he hit his championship-winning home run for Memphis in 2000.) Let's take a look at the best three-year run in Musial's brilliant 22-year career, and compare the numbers with Pujols' first three campaigns. (And keep in mind, Pujols' numbers are through Labor Day. He has more than 20 games yet to pad his figures.)
Selecting Musial's best three-year stretch is a bit like selecting the finest smelling rose at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Hard to go wrong. For my money, The Man's record from 1946 to 1948 (a period that saw him win two of his three MVP awards and two of his seven batting titles) is the greatest three-year stretch in more than 110 years of Cardinal baseball. So let's slice that period from the record book, and compare the numbers with those of Albert Pujols, vintage 2001-2003.
Musial holds the advantage in batting average (.352 to .334), hits (641 to 560), runs (372 to 347), and triples (51 to 7). Pujols edges The Man in slugging percentage (.614 to .598), home runs (108 to 74), RBIs (371 to 329), and doubles (131 to 126). Four categories each. And a footnote: the three-year Musial blast described above ended when he was 28 years old. Pujols is all of 23.
Pujols reeled off a 30-game hitting streak during July and August, the longest in the majors this season and the longest by a Cardinal since (you guessed it) Musial hit in 30 straight in 1950. Pujols joins Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, and Nomar Garciaparra as the only players in history to achieve a 30-game streak during a season in which he also hit 30 home runs. Furthermore, Pujols and Jose Canseco are the only two players to hit 30 long ones in each of their first three seasons. Had enough? Pujols' career home run total is the third most for a third-year player in history, and he's within shouting distance of Ralph Kiner's record of 114.
Taken all together, the numbers are mind-numbing, even for baseball's stat-freaks. Consider that in his third season, Pujols has been a part of lengthy discussions on the following sacred achievements: batting .400 (not done in 62 years), the Triple Crown (not done in 36 years, 66 in the NL), DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak of 1941.
And to think the hero of Memphis's 2000 PCL champions is still three years away from becoming eligible for free agency. (Whether it's through an arbitrator's ruling or the good sense of Cardinal management, count onPujols becoming the richest player in franchise history before he dons a free agen'ös cap.)
His eye-popping numbers aside, perhaps it's Pujols' quiet, family-man demeanor that will ensure his position someday near those Busch Stadium statues of Musial, Brock, Shoendienst, and Ozzie. Matter of fact, with St. Louis planning a new stadium for as early as the 2007 season, you might well consider the Cards' new nest The House That Albert Built.