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He was born Jose Alberto Pujols, the name given to him by his mother because she liked the sound of it. As a child, he chose baseball. Baseball chose him too. When a person is the only person you can imagine them to be, when he does what he does and becomes what he becomes, then in spite of your disinclination to believe in absolutes, in inevitabilities, you may allow for the occasional Jose Alberto Pujols.
On Sunday, he hit the 660th home run of his baseball career, not counting the 19 he hit in eight postseasons, and so tied Willie Mays in fifth place on that list, behind only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez. His first homer since Aug. 4, the history came Sunday as a go-ahead blast for the Los Angeles Angels against the Colorado Rockies.
In the days leading to his most recent home run, I asked him about his name because if you are great enough for long enough, if you do what you do and become what you become and there seems to be no other possible outcome, the people in charge of these things change your middle name for you. So one day you have more hits than Tony freakin’ Gwynn, score more runs than Ted freakin’ Williams, drive in more runs than Ty freakin’ Cobb, Stan freakin’ Musial and Barry freakin’ Bonds, have more doubles than Hank freakin’ Aaron and hit as many home runs as Willie freakin’ Mays, and fewer than but four others who ever played the game.
Which means you are to be, in the conversations of tomorrow — sorry, mom — Albert freakin’ Pujols.
This, too, is inevitable.
For Albert Pujols, 40 years old, 20 major league seasons in, 35 years of baseball in, this also is a delightfully absurd development.
“Here I am, man, 40 years later, getting my name mentioned next to these people, these legends,” he said. “Who could’ve thought that? Who could’ve thought, this poor little kid from the Dominican Republic? Can you believe it?”
Yesterday, it seemed to him, he set out to play well enough to earn another day in the big leagues. Just one more day. So began the habits of thousands of days, the sweat of tens of thousands of swings, the force of millions of decisions, so that a single number — today it is 660 — could be separated out and dwelt upon. It’s a lot of home runs.
For 20 years, and 15 before that, he’d committed to getting one pitch and hitting that. Then he’d started over. Honing it. Sharpening it. Chasing it. On Sunday, a fastball from Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez he’d hit over the left field fence. What it represented was not a computer-generated swing path, not the ball makeup or the wind direction or the field dimensions, but a commitment to that moment, to that contact, made long before he could have dreamt it real. We see the number — 660. We see the result. We see the company it puts him in. The freakin’ company it puts him in.
He sees some talent and a gift being played about as far as they can be played, not because they would have lasted two or three decades on their own, but because he chose to dedicate himself to them. To the small sacrifices — no late hours, no alcohol, no tobacco, no distractions, no diversion from the routine. To the large ones — this summer, before the season began, was his first ever at home regularly with his family: his wife, Deidre; his children, Isabella, 22; Albert Jr., 19; Sophia, 14; Ezra, 10; and Grace, 7. They rode bikes, they took walks, they ate as a family, they huddled against the virus, and then another season started.
The rare player reaches such career heights at anything close to full bore. Pujols granted, “I’m probably not the same hitter,” he was in his prime, a fair-sized confession for a proud man not prone to thoughts of even incremental submission. Also, what would it matter? He does not hit for the batting average he once did or the power. He does not reach first base as quickly. And? He still must tend to the talent he has and the gift he was granted, he said. The game deserves it, he said. He deserves it.
Those parts of his baseball constitution — the talent and a gift — are what he shares with the other men, the ones whose names and careers he chases by virtue of his own career. The dedication to those ideals is what he bound himself to on his first day. They are what he will carry from the field on his last.
Until then, he said, “I still have a mission.”
He does not really know Willie Mays. He met him at an All-Star Game in San Francisco in 2007 and after that would say hello when he saw him. He knows about Mays, of course, about the player he was, maybe the best ever, and that Mays, too, turned greatness into something even better. He figures they share parts of that.
“I look at it like that,” Pujols said. “Willie Mays was given that gift, that talent, and then he knew what he had to do. I got the same gift. Maybe not the same talent.”
“But the mentality,” he said, “was the same that Willie Mays had. Our mentality was the same, I think. It had to be. It was about our desire to get better and be better. I’ll bet if you put us in a room and asked us a bunch of questions, 95 percent of the answers are going to be pretty similar. Now, we express the gift in different ways. But, it’s the same gift. It’s the same drive.”
He said he feels as strong as he has in years. The hits haven’t fallen on some nights, true enough, and there’s time for that. He’ll stay at it, because that is the obligation. He’s still earning his next day in the big leagues, as it never really felt otherwise for him, even when he was the only one who thought so.
That’s a big number he just reached, an even bigger freaking name, and what he says over and over is that he is blessed, just blessed, and that God has been good to him and his family, and that it’s not just a baseball thing.
“For me, if there’s anything I would say,” he said, “it’s that I’m enjoying the game more now than maybe I ever have. That’s something I can say I’m really proud of. I worked so hard for so long, now I can actually enjoy it. Like I said, I’m still on that mission. But I’m in my last years. I want to continue to pass this along, sit down with the young guys, talk about baseball. I love that. You know why? Because I care about it and I care about the game.”
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