Commentary

Albert Pujols' 500 chase had no buzz

Mystique of 500 HRs has faded due to the changing nature of baseball milestones

Originally Published: April 23, 2014
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

With two majestic swings against Washington's Taylor Jordan on Tuesday night, Albert Pujols became the 26th player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs in his career. As a nine-time All-Star, a three-time MVP and one of the greatest right-handed hitters in history, he's a worthy addition to a fraternity that includes the likes of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Ted Williams.

Who'll be No. 27 on the list? Bill James, the definitive authority on the subject, gives Chicago White Sox DH Adam Dunn (444 career home runs) a 95 percent chance to reach the 500 mark. Miguel Cabrera, who has 367 homers at age 31, is close behind at 91 percent, and then the odds drop precipitously to Adrian Beltre, who has 376 home run trots in the bank and is given a 54 percent chance to join the club.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinAlbert Pujols became the 26th player in baseball history to join the 500 home run club.

After a baseball-wide assault on 500 during the height of the performance-enhancing drug era, Pujols broke a relative dry spell for the milestone. He's the first slugger to celebrate the achievement since April 17, 2009, when New York Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield wrapped a drive inside the left-field foul pole against Milwaukee reliever Mitch Stetter and celebrated with hugs and high-fives in the dugout and a curtain call from an appreciative crowd at Citi Field.

Perhaps because Pujols hasn't made an All-Star team since 2010 and is no longer viewed as one of baseball's transcendent stars, home run No. 500 was strangely devoid of drama or buzz. Membership in the club is a seminal moment in a brilliant career for Pujols. But at times it came perilously close to falling through the cracks.

Why wasn't America captivated by the thrill of the chase? The answers have as much to do with the changing nature of baseball milestones and the modern state of information dissemination as the narrative surrounding Pujols and his quest for 500. Aaron once called 500 homers "a personal victory in endurance and willingness to overcome adversity." Now the mystique has faded, and any player who approaches the threshold is entering a cachet-free zone.

So what factors are responsible for the death of the home run vigil? We're glad you asked.

The PED taint

Let's start with the obvious. No milestone has been as sullied by PEDs as the 500 club. Of the 26 players in the fraternity, 10 made it between 1999 and 2009. Among that group, only Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Jim Thome never flunked a test, appeared in the Mitchell report, broke down sobbing in an interview with Bob Costas, wagged an admonishing finger before Congress or were otherwise dogged by speculation that they had pharmaceutical help.

Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and Sheffield weren't as fortunate. Some have acknowledged their links to PEDs, others have steadfastly denied, and some didn't have much choice in the matter. But they're all outcasts to a degree -- from the Hall of Fame, or public acceptance, or even gainful employment. There's a reason it was such a big deal when Bonds popped into San Francisco's camp as a guest instructor for a week in spring training.

When the batting average for a milestone is .300, it reigns supreme as the most scorned and devalued of iconic achievements. Baseball fans have spent more than a decade running away from these numbers; it's almost disingenuous now to turn around and embrace them.

Other than hearsay and innuendo, Pujols' only link to steroids use came when Jack Clark popped off on a talk show and called him a "juicer." Pujols filed a defamation suit, then backed off when Clark issued an apology and recanted his statement. That should be the end of the discussion. But as Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza have discovered, the act of merely having played in an era is enough to arouse suspicion and put a crimp in a player's legacy.

Countdowns aren't what they used to be

There was a time, before information overload became a way of life, when the run-up to a milestone had the time and space to breathe, to percolate and to build. Aaron's long, arduous wait amid a box-full of racist mail was grist for enough human drama to span a long, cold winter. By the time he stepped in the box against Al Downing on April 8, 1974, the nation was riveted by the moment.

Now fans aren't so much privy to information as besieged by it, and once-in-a-lifetime moments are easily retrievable. If I'm at dinner when Albert Pujols goes deep and my phone buzzes with a news alert, I can wait until I finish dessert and I'm on my way to the parking lot to see the video of him rounding the bases. Then I can be assured I'll see it 500 more times before I'm worn out by the sight of it.

Given the wide array of news on the fly, a media machine in search of quick hits doesn't have the time or energy to commit to a home run watch that's going to build momentum. Just for fun, after Pujols hit his 498th homer Saturday, I checked ESPN.com and six other major websites with a national slant. Three of the sites led their baseball pages with a story on Bryce Harper getting benched for jogging out a ground ball. The other sites featured stories on Mark Buehrle's 4-0 start, the Milwaukee Brewers' big April, Henderson Alvarez's two-hit shutout against Seattle and the ins-and-outs of the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera debate.

On Sunday, Carlos Gomez got in a brawl in Pittsburgh, Baltimore second baseman Ryan Flaherty became the latest player afflicted by "transfer rule" disease, and Pujols went 1-for-4 with no homers in a loss to Detroit. After a day as a footnote, he was back to being an afterthought again.

Milestones, too

When fans work themselves into a lather over baseball and PEDs, it's said that the numbers are sacred. We care because it's seared into our brains that Babe Ruth slugged 714 home runs, or Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, or Pete Rose passed Ty Cobb with his 4,192nd hit.

Now that concept seems rather quaint, particularly in regard to home run totals. Does anyone other than A-Rod and his accountant know or care how many career bombs he has? And if you're not employed by the Elias Sports Bureau and you can instantly recite how many homers Sosa, Palmeiro and Ramirez have hit, feel free to take a bow.

The answers, for the uninitiated, are 654, 609, 569 and 555. How magical or "sacred" are those numbers?

More sophisticated stats trump big, round numbers

When Aaron, Mays, Robinson and Ernie Banks were completing their 500th home run trots, it anointed them with a certain stature and the imprimatur of greatness. Five hundred was a fat, round, easily relatable number that was testament to a player's longevity and ability to produce over time.

Now we have more sophisticated measures available to measure baserunning, defense and other contributions that determine a player's worth to his team and place in the overall landscape. Bagwell retired with 449 homers -- well short of the magic 500 -- but Baseball-reference.com will let you know that he ranks 37th in history with a wins above replacement of 79.6. That's a significantly higher WAR than Reggie Jackson, Thomas and several other 500 home run club members.

When Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco failed to reach 500 homers, they lamented the blow to their Hall of Fame chances. Dunn, conversely, is a lock to reach 500 if he decides he wants to keep playing beyond this season. But does anyone think he's a cinch for Cooperstown?

At the other end of the scale, Chipper Jones walked away from baseball two years ago with 468 homers and nary a second thought. If Jones had any misgivings that a failure to collect those final 32 would exclude him from the Hall, it wasn't enough to prevent him from taking a farewell tour and going hunting.

Context is everything. When a 20-win season is diminished because we know wins are largely a function of run support and the effectiveness of a starter's bullpen, it naturally follows that 300 wins won't have the same mystique. In the world of hitters, all-around players are valued over one-trick ponies. And when three players have already surpassed 700 homers and five more have topped 600, milestone fatigue sets in to a degree, and 500 loses much of its aura.

The one-team player is an endangered species

Of the 26 players in the 500 home run club, only 10 did it with his original club. The last player to claim that distinction was Phillies great Mike Schmidt, who hit his 500th in 1987 with his good friend Harry Kalas providing a soundtrack for the ages. Would the homer have been as meaningful to Schmidt if he hit it while wearing, say, a Pirates uniform? Of course not.

Context is everything. … In the world of hitters, all-around players are valued over one-trick ponies. And when three players have already surpassed 700 homers and five more have topped 600, milestone fatigue sets in to a degree, and 500 loses much of its aura.

There's no faulting Pujols for signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels 2½ years ago. Similarly, it's hard to blame the Cardinals for moving on from their franchise player. They won a National League pennant last year with MLB's 11th-largest payroll and 17 homegrown players on their 25-man World Series roster.

But the late-career venue change cast Pujols' pursuit of 500 in a different light. St. Louis fans grew to know and love Pujols as the former 13th-round draft pick who burst onto the 2001 roster out of spring training, silenced a crowd in Houston with a momentous playoff homer off Brad Lidge, joined Ruth and Jackson in the World Series three-homer pantheon and mingled with the great Stan Musial. The city's admiration and affection for its marquee player deepened with each of his 455 homers in a Cardinals uniform.

Angels fans have reason to celebrate Pujols' 500th homer, for sure. But they'll do it with far less insight into the road he's traveled. Pujols going over the top as an Angel doesn't compare with Eddie Mathews hitting his 500th homer as a Houston Astro, but you get the picture.

Cynics, inevitably, will point to "East Coast bias" because Pujols' achievement got less attention than it deserved. But didn't it enhance the storyline when Derek Jeter recorded his 3,000th hit in the same uniform that he wore three years out of high school in Kalamazoo, Mich.? The same applies to Mariano Rivera recording his first and 652nd career saves as a Yankee.

Pujols, a no-doubt Hall of Famer, should take pride in his achievement and revel in the company he joins. The rest of us are celebrating right along with him. The moment that home run No. 500 cleared the fence was still special. But the days of being enthralled, captivated or mesmerized by the chase are history.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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