By J.R. Gamble April 20, 2014, 02:05 PM EST
The Steroids Era is considered over, but its lasting negative effects on the way today’s MLB stars are perceived, make Albert Pujols’ “Road to 500” much less anticipated and celebrated than it should be. For the past 14 years Pujols has put up mythical numbers that should leave him at the doorstep of immortality. He is the only player in major league history to swat at least .300 with 30 or more dingers and 100 or more RBIs in his first 10 seasons. He also is the first player to accumulate at least 500 doubles in his first 12 seasons.
After an injury-plagued, slow start to his Halos career, the 34-year-old Pujols has regained his power stroke to begin the 2014 season and crushed his 498th career homer on Saturday afternoon off Tigers closer Joe Nathan. Pujols slammed No. 497 on Friday and with the roll he’s on could reach the milestone this week. Pujols is under contract through 2021 but only played 99 games with career lows in homers (17) and batting average (.258) last season due to knee and foot problems. In just 17 games this season, Pujols is already tied for the MLB lead with six homers. That’s throwback, vintage Pujols “AKA” The St. Louis Sizzle. He smashed 445 of those 498 homers with the Cardinals, winning three MVP’s and setting the standard as the model of consistency for contemporary sluggers.
Now an aging big-bopper—but still a guy pitchers must approach with tongue-kissing-a swordfish-caution—Pujols sits two homeruns away from a number that at one time automatically qualified a player for Hall of Fame entrance. Disgraced legends such as Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro along with a HOF voting committee and MLB hierarchy now committed to punishing any player with PED ties, have made the 500-homer plateau irrelevant.
Pujols is an interesting case. He’s never failed a drug test (that we know of) and before Miguel Cabrera went Triple Crown crazy, was considered the elite hitter in the game. Just 25 ballers in MLB history have ever hit 500 homers in their lifetime. His countdown to 500 should be a fan-frenzied, anticipated event. But there's a massive legion of baseball fans, it doesn’t resonate with, because Pujols did it in the heart of the Steroids Era. We have seen a slew of cats get to 500, as 10 new members joined in the last 15 years. Prior to that PED-induced flurry of bombs and video game scores, just four players had reached the total by 1965.
Some of the recent milestone-mashers like Jim Thome and Gary Sheffield have eclipsed the mark, but there are still questions concerning their qualifications for Cooperstown – PED suspicions aside. Thome hung around for 22 years and hit 612 homers. While he was never strongly-linked to PED’s, he’s not considered one of the best players of his generation. Sheffield might be, but he is considered a user.
Most of the elite sluggers of era eventually were outed as PED users. Big Papi was implicated, but he denied it and it kind of got pushed to the background. Pujols was never on the radar, but the numbers he has put up and the era he did it in makes his stats suspicious in the same way people question Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio’s Hall of Fame worthiness.
Baseball will probably try to hitch its promotional cart to Pujols’ feat and go all out to make it a “clean” 500, but there’s no way I’m going to get hyped about any celebratory festivities and set myself up to once again be disappointed when its discovered that he hit the juice too, because in reality, if Pujols did accomplish these amazing stats clean, then he is the greatest hitter of our generation hands down. Some fans may want to believe that’s the case. At this point, baseball needs that to be true.
No need to repeat the entire saga, which baseball fans know all too well at this point. Baseball needed a boost following the 1994 strike, so MLB turned the other cheek and in some cases encouraged players to take steroids and other PEDs until an entire baseball community acted as if they were oblivious to what was really going on. Records that stood for decades, were shattered, the fans returned to MLB in droves to watch our new superhero sluggers chase baseball’s royal ghosts.
Then when sh#@t hit the scoreboard and the Senate Hearings popped off, players were dressed up in monkey suits and sent to the slaughter for public amusement and political Kama Sutra. They lied on TV and denied using. Some refused to directly answer accusations. Others forgot how to speak English.
They were like shrinking bugs under a heated microscope and commissioner Selig, who for all intents and purposes allowed the orchestration of a widespread PED epidemic, went from the ringleader to the witch hunter. His ability to avoid blame in something that occurred under his reign and then become the prosecutor of guys he basically used to build his legacy and take baseball to new stratosphere’s financially, is still baffling to this day.
Expect baseball writers to say that Pujols' 500-homers won’t mean jack, but they’ll say it’s because no one cares. We’ve seen this all before, too often of late. Some will claim ignorance to the fact that he was even approaching the record. Pujols himself is downplaying the milestone, publicly stating that he ”doesn’t want to talk about the record.” He says his focus is on staying healthy and leading LA back into the fold as contenders. If I was Pujols, I wouldn’t make too big a deal about it either. Celebrated home run marks have been a stain on baseball in recent years. The stench of suspicion that follows every prolific slugger outside of Ken Griffey Jr. and recent Hall of Fame inductee Frank Thomas is sickening.
The fact that I can’t embrace this homer chase has nothing to do with how frequently it's occurred of late. It’s just unlikely to me that guys are going to smash the records of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson and giants of that ilk, without a little help. There really was no such thing as “clean” during Pujols’ prolific homer years. He came into the league in 2001 and from 2003 to 2010 he mashed over 40 homers six times in those eight peak seasons.
I can’t say he’s dirty. However, if all of his success is “legit,” then the fact that his accomplishments aren’t moving the crowd, in light of everything that has transpired the past 15 years, is an indictment on the game and not the players. MLB is experiencing the calm before the collapse. While TV deals and taking advantage of lower to middle class fans who must budget for a day at the ballpark like it’s a week-long summer vacation has the league on top fiscally, the sacred value of baseball records has been considerably diminished. Baseball will never be the same. The homer will never be viewed the same. That’s just foul.