Sports

There's a reason for lack of fanfare about Albert Pujols' 500th home run

SportsLos Angeles AngelsProfessional BaseballBaseballAlbert PujolsSt. Louis CardinalsMike Trout

The number that matters most is not 500.

The number that matters most is 0.

That is the number of major league players that have hit more home runs this season than Albert Pujols.

He got a mighty sweet serenade in the visiting clubhouse in Washington on Tuesday night after he hit his 500th home run. But the Angels are not paying him a quarter-billion dollars for reminders of how great he was when he played for the St. Louis Cardinals.

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If that really is the classic Pujols back at-bat, that would be a big swing toward an October different from the last two, when he and the Angels stayed home and the Pujols-less Cardinals advanced deep into the playoffs.

In the days before Pujols became the 26th man to hit 500 major league home runs, and the first to hit that milestone in five years, there was no national buzz, no sense of anticipation. There was a ton of excitement around Nationals Park when the Angels arrived Monday, but that was all about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

The obvious reason is that a glow no longer surrounds 500, that the standard has been tainted by too many players getting there, and by too many of those players being tainted.

Babe Ruth hit the 500 mark in 1929. Eddie Murray did it in 1996. In between, 13 players did it — Hall of Fame members all, Ruth and Murray and all the rest.

In 11 years, nine guys got there — Mark McGwire in 1999, Barry Bonds in 2001, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro in 2003, Ken Griffey Jr. in 2004, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome in 2007, Manny Ramirez in 2008, and Gary Sheffield in 2009.

The home run itself was devalued by the steroid era. Too much of a good thing. No longer does 500 guarantee admission into Cooperstown. Adam Dunn could get to 500 next year, but does anyone consider him Hall of Fame material?

And, of those nine guys to hit 500 from 1999 to 2009, only Griffey, Thomas and Thome have not been linked to the use of performance-enhancing substances.

"I think those folks might have diminished the accomplishment," Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said, "because of all the suspicions, shadows and doubts."

Scully said he still considers 500 home runs "a major accomplishment" and said he was delighted for Pujols. Scully remembered watching Willie Mays hit his 500th or 600th home run and said the fanfare was limited to Mays coming out of the dugout and tipping his cap.

That was in the pre-ESPN era. In this era, where nothing is too small to be a big deal, the relative silence surrounding Pujols' feat might have less to do with the steroids other players have done and more to do with what Pujols has not done.

When he signed with the Angels, remember, he was the greatest hitter of his generation. He was ALBERT PUJOLS.

In more than two years in Anaheim, he never has been the best player on his team. In his first month with the Angels, the best player on the team was Mark Trumbo. Since then, the best player has been Mike Trout. That is, MIKE TROUT.

It was astounding, really. Pujols went from icon in St. Louis to invisible in Anaheim. He didn't make the All-Star game. His team didn't make the playoffs.

In his first month with the Angels, in 2012, he did not hit a home run. He still finished with 30, despite a knee injury that required postseason surgery.

In 2013, he was finished in July, done in by a painful foot tissue that bothered him until it ruptured. The injury might have explained that year, but his on-base and slugging percentages had declined for four consecutive years.

Now he leads the American League in slugging percentage. The last time he hit eight home runs in April, in 2009, he finished with 47 home runs, tops in the National League. The time before that, in 2006, he finished with 49, his career high.

Dodgers batting coach Mark McGwire, who coached Pujols in St. Louis, said this is not just a hot month. With his lower body healthy, McGwire said Pujols can drive good pitches and can stop swinging at bad pitches in an effort to force results.

"He had a flat tire," McGwire said. "His tires are filled back up, at full pressure."

Pujols started the season at 492. He told reporters in Washington he was not surprised to get to 500 with a week left in April.

"No, because I've had great Aprils before," he said. "I'm healthy and I'm feeling good at the plate right now. I mean, I don't need to tell you guys. You guys can see it.

"When you have your leg on it, now you can rely on the power you have and it wasn't there the last couple years. You can look for your own eyes."

The Angels do not expect to see vintage Pujols through 2021, when his contract expires at 41. But a few summers of retro Pujols would be nice, an October or two much nicer.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report from Washington.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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