Albert Pujols joins 700 HR club: The best stories from those who played with and against him
Twenty two years. Seven hundred home runs.
Albert Pujols achieved a level of greatness only three other players in the history of the game have matched when he hit No. 700 on Friday night — his second homer of the evening at Dodger Stadium. He joins Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only players in the exclusive 700-home run club.
As the St. Louis Cardinals slugger made history, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers and Buster Olney asked former teammates, opposing pitchers, and other greats about their favorite moments. They also asked them to share their memories of playing with, pitching to, and witnessing an all-time great homerun hitter during Pujols’ two decades in the majors.
The home runs we just can’t forget
Mike Trout: ‘This is for 600. This is gonna be sick right here’
“The grand slam, when he hit 600. This is the reality. It was a huge spot in the game and everyone thought the same thing. ‘This is for 600. This is going to be sick right now. He hit it. He enjoys the moment. And that’s the thing — people kept asking me, ‘Hey, do you think he’s going to get it ?’ For sure. Albert prepares himself well. He doesn’t change anything in his approach or try to hit a home run. He just wants to hit the ball well. That’s big. “
Manny Machado: Game 3 of the 2011 World Series? ‘You could even throw the rosin bag and he was probably going to hit it out’
“That was just incredible. He was not missing. He would hit anything you gave him. He would probably hit the ball out of the rosin bag. That sweet swing. Even his homers going back — his first homer. It’s amazing how smooth and how long it stays in the track. It’s impressive. “
Tony La Russa: ‘That gave us life’
“In 2006, we had a big lead and everyone got hurt, so it came down to September and we were struggling to get into the playoffs. San Diego came to town on Wednesday night. We had lost the first two series games. In the eighth inning, we were down a run. The Padres brought in Cla Meredith, a good sinkerball pitcher, and he scored a three-run homer that won the game. This gave us hope.
“His real claim to fame is that he is a high average hitter with extra-base power. He is a scoreboard player. He’s trying to hit the line-drive single with a runner on second. Then he might get all of it for an entire two-run homer. He hits all pitches and will go foul line to foul. He gets the carry when he has that underspin in his swing. “
Paul Goldschmidt: ‘If you wrote it up perfectly, this is what you would write’
“There’s been three or four home runs I’ve been absolutely amazed at. The [Drew] Smyly one at his eyes was impressive. The one in Pittsburgh. This one was a game-winner and passed A-Rod (on all-time home runs lists). Another game winner was when it was 0-0. He homered. Then came the ones against Padres. A two-homer game… almost like a storybook. That’s what I will remember. This is how you would write it if you had a perfect copy: Albert with the game at stake — and he wins. Amazing. “
The secret to hitting 700 home runs
Nolan Arenado: ‘He doesn’t think about hitting home runs’
“I’m probably going to say something people don’t like, but he doesn’t think about hitting home runs. He tells me that, and I believe him. He doesn’t think about it, he says, because of the way he swings and the way that he works. He won’t change what has worked for him. It’s all about getting on top and backspinning the ball. And wherever it goes, it goes. He is a man who talks the talk and does the right thing. I believe him. “
Mark McGwire: It’s all in the hands
“I’m a true believer in the bottom hands being the key to swinging the bat. Albert is a great example. Albert never lets go of his bottom hand, even when he has to run. He’s one of the greatest swing players ever. “
Chris Carpenter: The Machine calls his own shots
“There were multiple times he would go up there for his first at-bat and come back and tell us he was going to hit a homer the next time up. He would do it a lot of times, I can’t even count how many times. He understood how they were going after him and it happened quite often. It was incredible to see him play. “
Matt Holliday: And he’s earned the right to admire his home runs
“When you hit 700 home runs, you know when it’s going out and when it’s not. I find it annoying when a guy has three career home runs and it hits the wall and gets one. This guy should run. But when you hit 700, you know what it feels like. If anyone has any insight into when a ball will go over the wall, he is the one to call. “
Mike Matheny: ‘He walked up … like his family wasn’t going to eat unless he made a pitcher pay’
“You run out of ways to describe how unique, different and special he is. He’s relentless. I have never seen a hitter give away an at-bat. It didn’t matter how many hits he had that night, he was still able to walk up to the fifth one like he wasn’t going home without making a pitcher pay. From Day 1 of spring camp until his departure, the intensity he maintained was remarkable. “
Jim Edmonds: ‘If Albert doesn’t get hurt, we’re talking 800 or 850’
“If Albert doesn’t get hurt and plays three-quarters in Anaheim of how he played here, we’re talking about 800 or 850 [home runs]. Your brain was telling you the same thing when he came back to Anaheim: “You can’t hit righties anymore, and you’re swinging at the fences.” He’s now a pure hitter.
“He will not back down. I’ve seen him take a knuckleball out to right field and I’ve seen him take a 102 mph fastball out to left field. He is relentless in his approach to the plate. He took Kyle Farnsworth deep in 2004 on 100 mph and I’m sitting on deck thinking, ‘Wow. It’s been fascinating to watch him grow this year, from a leg kick to overswinging and chasing pitches to becoming a hitter. He hit home runs after that. He still has another year ahead of him. He won’t play, but I don’t think he will. “
What it’s like facing Pujols
Brad Lidge: ‘I made a mistake — and it wasn’t super surprising that he didn’t make a mistake’
Lidge broke into the big leagues the year after Pujols, and initially, he had some success against the Cardinals slugger. Roy Oswalt, a teammate, mentioned that there had been an evolution in the challenge that comes with pitching to Pujols. The holes that you can attack as a pitcher weren’t available anymore.
“Suddenly, it felt like he knew what he was going to throw before I did,” Lidge said. You felt like you had got to be perfect. He had so much plate coverage, whether you’re throwing a 97 mph fastball or a slider down and away, you had to be perfect. “
Lidge states that this is the most difficult part of Pujols. He was strong, had great eyes and great hands. But he was also able to anticipate the pitch with great success. Lidge said, “If there’s one thing I know about him it’s that his chess match will be won far more than he should.” Lidge stated that Pujols was skilled at fouling off the ball to continue the at bat, even if the pitcher was able execute a big-breaking pitch. Lidge said that if the pitcher was using his glove or hands to identify the next pitch, he would be the first to see it.
The Astros bore in on the National League title in 2005, leading Game 5 of the NL Championship Series, and Lidge, the Houston closer, was called on to finish off the Cardinals. Two outs and two on, Lidge tossed a good slider and Pujols chased him.
“I tried [to come back with the slider],” Lidge said. “I made an error” — the ball was in the strike zone but not over the plate’s heart — “and it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t make a mistake.” Pujols smashed a three-run homer into left field in Houston. The ball smashed against the protective glass.
Lidge sat next to Pujols after the home run and said hello at All-Star Games without mentioning the home run. He feels that Pujols is a hitter who was “hard-wired” to greatness, both mentally and physically.
Greg Maddux: ‘He hit it over frickin’ Waveland Avenue’
“The first time I faced him, I threw him a changeup that he missed by 2 or 3 feet. I think, “Wow, okay, maybe we got something there.” Next time, I used the same changeup and he hit it on frickin’ Waveland Avenue. And I went, ‘Oh s—, maybe they have something here. This guy is quite good. ‘
” If you walked him or gave up a hit, you won the AB. He was as good as anyone at covering the middle of the plate. He was the only one I would give up. “
Glendon Rusch: ‘He was the best slugger I faced’
“He was the best slugger I faced that could do the most damage in the most different ways. He could hit a homer from any pitch. A mistake in or out-speed over the plate, he could do everything. He was in his prime when I met him. You had to be careful with him unless you had a lot of leads or were down by a lot. He would take you deep at any moment. He was a threat if he made a mistake, and a threat if he didn’t make one. “
Ryan Dempster: ‘There is no … more of an expert on how to give up home runs to Albert Pujols than me’
“There is no one out here that’s more of an expert on how to give up home runs to Albert Pujols than me. People have talent, people work hard and people are prepared. He was probably the best of all three, and probably more than any other person I have ever seen or met. He was always meticulous about his cage work, his BP, and everything else. He was almost like a cheat code in a video game when the game began. He knew the pitch was coming. He would profit from a pitcher falling into patterns. He never gave away at-bats. It could be 10-0 in the ninth and he would give you the same AB as if it were tied. He could hit any pitch that wasn’t executed and he could also hit pitches that were executed.
” This has been a perfect storm. He was able to defeat all the lefties and he went to the HR Derby to get locked in. He’s now feeling great, so when he faces the righties, it’s just continuing. “
Mike Hampton: ‘I should be thankful … that he didn’t go deep’
The Cardinals’ Opening Day lineup in 2001 was stacked with big names such as Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds, sluggers who most concerned Mike Hampton. He didn’t know much about the rookie left fielder Albert Pujols who was scheduled to play in his debut game.
Hampton remembers that not much information was available about Pujols so the left-handed Hampton decided to pitch Pujols in the same way as he pitched other right-handed batters. “Sink it away, cut it in,” said Hampton, whose start that day was his first with the Rockies after signing a $121 million deal. He shut out the Cardinals for 8 1/3 innings. Hampton laughed about his brief, difficult tenure in Colorado.
One out of five hits Hampton scattered was a seventh-inning strike to Pujols. This was the first of Pujols’ career. He said that he should be grateful that it was a single through a 6-hole. “
There’s nobody else like The Machine
Alex Rodriguez: ‘It was like he was a mad scientist’
Albert Pujols inhabited the NL Central in the first half of his career, and it was because of that history that Alex Rodriguez called Pujols about a pitcher from that division. Rodriguez assumed that Pujols would make observations about the pitcher and his repertoire. Rodriguez said, “Usually, that type of conversation will last for five minutes.” “Forty-five minutes — it went on for 45 minutes. He’s telling me all about his curveball, his sinker and his passion for the phone. He gave me the best scouting report that I have ever seen.
” If the count is 0-0, Pujols will throw you a curveball,” Pujols said to Rodriguez. “If he is ahead in the count, he will throw two fastballs inside — but because it is his desire to get to his changeup. “
Rodriguez reflects back on the conversation and says, “It felt like he was a mad scientist.” He was walking me through at bats and giving me very specific information about what the guy was going do.
After that game, Rodriguez recalled hitting a double off the pitcher. “He wanted to know everything about how it went, what he threw to me, the counts, everything … It’s not just about the pitch, it’s also about how it went. “
Dale Scott: ‘He was there to do a job’
There were days when Albert Pujols would pause briefly, as he ran or off the field in between innings, and compliment longtime umpire Dale Scott on his work calling balls and strikes in the previous game. Scott said, “It might be a scenario where he catches you eye and says, ‘Good job,’” It didn’t happen every single time. There were days when Pujols would not stop and wouldn’t say anything. Scott wondered if he was struggling with his strike zone.
This was all in keeping with Pujols’ intensity, says Scott, who shared fields with Pujols over the past 17 seasons of the umpire’s career. Scott said that he was friendly and offered a smile and greeting when he stepped up to the plate. “But he was there for a job.” Pujols wasn’t loud about ball-or strike calls. But if he had a problem with the umpire at home plate, he would be passive aggressive — perhaps a quick smile, maybe a step back from the batter’s box. Scott stated, “If the bench saw it then they would react to that, or the fans.” He reminded me of Cal Ripken. He was serious… His aura was one of seriousness. “
Joey Votto: ‘I’ll never be at that level. I’ll never be that guy’
Votto has a crystal-clear memory of the moment when he recognized the preeminence of Pujols, an at-bat that distinguished him from other hitters — including Votto. Votto stated, “It stands out in how it represents his skill, and is.”
The Reds’ first baseman was in his second season in the big leagues, and Cincinnati was hosting St. Louis. Dusty Baker summoned David Weathers, a long-time reliever, from the bullpen to help the Reds take a 3-0 lead.
“Nothing rattled Weathers,” Votto recalled. Votto recalled that he had a two-pitch command and a fastball running [inside to right-handed batters]. He was able to handle large situations. You knew there would be a ball in play or strikeout. “
As Pujols launched the ball towards left-center field in a crucial situation, Votto thought: That’s a really great swing — a really strong swing on a pitch that looked good.
Votto rewatched the at-bat on video to confirm his initial reaction. Votto saw Weathers attempt a backdoor sinker to get off the outside edge. The ball was moving toward the batter’s box of the left-handed hitter, and then veering back towards the plate. Weathers pitched a great pitch. It was also a good spot because right-handed hitters needed to be aware of how his sinker would cut in. Pujols somehow had the ability to see the pitch and to swing well enough to hit it into the seats.
” I had already seen him at that level,” Votto said. “But after watching it I realized: I won’t be at that level. I’ll never be that guy. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.