CHICAGO – The oblique muscle ruined baseball's summer, which is quite a feat considering 95 percent of people haven't the slightest idea what the oblique is. Quick anatomy lesson: Bend left like you're trying to put your ear on the ground, put your hand above your right hip, straighten up and … feel that muscle tightening in the lower-right quadrant of your back? It's the oblique. Careful. It strains rather easily.
St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols is too familiar with the fickle ways of the oblique. When he tweaked his June 3, he had 25 home runs and 65 RBI through 53 games. Sure, the season hadn't even reached its one-third mark, yet here we are, three weeks later, and Pujols still leads the major leagues in home runs. As if we needed more proof that no matter the success of a team, nothing in baseball exhilarates quite like the spectacle of one hyperachiever.
And accordingly, nothing delivers such energy-sapping disappointment. The last baseball player to capture the interest of non-fans was Barry Bonds, and the ones before that were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and, well, thanks a bunch, Larry, Curly and Moe.
Now this? Different, if you believed The New York Times headline that trumpeted "The Best Thing About Him Is That He Doesn't Cheat," and even if you do employ a healthy dose of skepticism, as any attuned baseball fan does, you want to suspend it for Pujols' at-bats, because, my, if they aren't a few brushstrokes and an easel away from being artwork.
This was supposed to be the summer of Albert Pujols, and with his return Thursday thanks to a mended oblique – for the time being anyway because oblique injuries are baseball's version of the clap – it may still be. But in the 18 days Pujols sat on the bench, Jason Grimsley was busted with human growth hormone, which dragged Pujols' name into the mess because they share a personal trainer. With that, and the headline-grabbing of Ozzie Guillen's big mouth and Roger Clemens' return rendering moot Pujols' comeback, it's easy to wonder if short attention spans apply to eminence, too.
Because in his first 185 at-bats, Pujols engineered two of the greatest months ever to start a season – even better than in his 2005 MVP season – and only reinforced that he is this generation's DiMaggio, minus Marilyn.
"You forgot about Barry," Guillen said this week with the Cardinals in town. "You forgot about the people we're missing in this game. Sammy and [Rafael] Palmeiro."
What Guillen meant was: Pujols makes you want to believe greatness still comes without a needle or a pill, that when he started the season 2-for-2 with two home runs and pounded a three-homer game against Cincinnati and finished April with a record 14, nothing nefarious was afoot.
It continued in May. Another 11 home runs, and in almost every imaginable scenario: early in games and late, in blowouts and to take leads. He is dangerous on any count. Pujols has three home runs on 0-0, 0-2, 1-1, 1-2, 2-0 and 2-1, and two homers on 0-1, 1-0 and 2-2, with one coming on a 3-2 pitch. The only reason he hasn't hit a 3-0 home run is because all 15 times he's seen the count the pitcher walked him.
Slice the numbers any way – one particular favorite: his first at-bat against a starter he slugs .673, his second he slugs .813 and his third he slugs .941 – and they all say the same thing: Pujols hits a baseball better than anyone on the planet right now.
"How do you keep pitching to this man?" Guillen said. "I told him in New York this winter, 'Don't worry. When I face you, you'd better put Babe Ruth behind you, because we're not going to pitch to you.' It's amazing."
And it's just as amazing how quickly an injury can torpedo history. When Pujols chased a foul ball down the first-base line June 3, he pulled up lame and reached for his back. The next day, the lineup looked naked without him, and though the Cardinals persevered in his absence, they still wondered why him, why then?
"Get better," White Sox first baseman Jim Thome said this week when he saw Pujols. He was serious. He's rooting for Pujols, much like everybody that isn't facing him does.
"He's the best hitter in the game," Thome said. "I'm a fan of his, and he's fun to watch. It's too bad he had the injury. He might have done something."
What, exactly, no one knows. Pujols chafes when asked what-if questions because he never is one to play hypotheticals and focuses instead on what can be.
Which is how he has always operated and why he gets the benefit of the doubt during steroid witch hunts, even if it's senseless to omit anyone from suspicion with no test for hGH. Pujols is obsessive in his preparation to the point that any alteration in his routine leaves him sour. And that made the three-week stretch he missed particularly trying.
Batting practice wasn't routine; it was a privilege granted by Cardinals trainer Barry Weinberg. When Pujols jogged backward or bent over to touch his toes or scooped a ball out of the dirt, eyes trained on his face to see if it grimaced and his hand to see if it instinctively grabbed a sore spot.
"Albert's very smart," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said two days before Pujols returned. "He understands the consequences. He's worked hard. He's gone step by step. He's feeling no pain. He'll continue to be smart, and he'll be encouraged by everyone around him not to push it."
So much for that. Against Weinberg's advice, Pujols came back Thursday, a day earlier than scheduled. He went 0-for-4 and wondered why everybody expected something more of him. He'd been out almost three weeks.
Perhaps he didn't realize what his first two months meant to baseball. Pujols was not merely a player. He was a cause, a uniter, a rallying point against the sport's past transgressions. And, anyway, he actually came a day late.
June 21 was the first day of summer. Even with no home run chase, maybe it still can be Albert Pujols'. No matter what his oblique has to say.
- Albert Pujols