Albert Pujols doesn't need 700 home runs. That just makes the chase even sweeter

My therapist thinks I need to care less about external validation. I think that’s a nice enlightened aspiration, but kinda pathologizes being a person. (I mean, really, who doesn’t care about external validation?) It seems particularly unattainable for anyone working in a public entertainment space. But I suppose in this one respect, Albert Pujols is more successful than I am.

As soon as he returned to the St. Louis Cardinals on a one-year contract in spring, Pujols announced that it would be a farewell tour: He intended to retire after the 2022 season. During a decade in Anaheim, the greatest hitter of an earlier generation had slipped into relative obscurity, but a compelling stint with the Dodgers in the second half earned him the opportunity to go out on his own terms — just as he had told ESPN he hoped to do.

The reunion has gone better than anyone could have anticipated. Not only are the Cardinals likely postseason-bound, Pujols has thrived as a mentor and in his platoon role, posting his best offensive numbers since he last played in St. Louis. So good, in fact, that in his 22nd season Pujols finds himself chasing 700 home runs, with a real chance to get there.

Currently at 695 through the Cardinals’ 138 games, he’s come close enough to joining the exclusive club — only Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds have cleared that threshold — that people have started to wonder: Will he really retire? What if he’s really, really close to 700?

“I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports, back when he was at 692. “No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement this was it when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.’’

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols tips his cap after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

I thought of those comments again recently when Serena Williams said of her US Open performance after announcing her intent to retire from tennis, "I'm just Serena, you know. I don't have anything to prove. I have absolutely nothing to lose."

How special it is, and rare I’d imagine, to feel such contentment in the twilight of the kind of career that usually ends when your body betrays your abilities. It’s all but impossible to go out on top; most athletes retire as shells of their peak selves.

Pujols has accomplished more than enough to feel proud, to feel confident that his last game will be no more than five years away from his induction into the Hall of Fame. You can’t not care about the accolades as a professional athlete. But maybe you can have enough of the individual ones — enough MVP awards (3), Silver Sluggers (6), Gold Gloves (2), fielding bibles (5), Hank Aaron Awards (2), Roberto Clemente Awards (1), Rookie of the Year awards (1), All-Star selections (11), batting titles (1), plus a couple of World Series rings — that the pursuit of more no longer outweighs a personal accounting of your own priorities.

Maybe self satisfaction isn’t inversely proportional to success.

What’s so wonderful about Pujols’ chase of 700 is that it has turned his final season into a fitting celebratory capstone to the career that made him famous before it made him an awkward lingering testament to all that he no longer was. In the past few weeks that he plays major league baseball, his at-bats will be appointment viewing, his cumulative stature in the sport again a national conversation.

And it’s the uncertainty that makes it so exciting. The confluence of his talent, age and time left until St. Louis’ season ends creates a compelling source of suspense and potential. It’s right on the line between possible and probable. We knew this would be the end before we knew he would slug over .500 on the season and play productively enough to play enough to just maybe hit 21 more. Which meant that when he got hot after the Home Run Derby and hit eight in the month of August, there was already a ticking clock hanging over it all. That’s how all good hunts should be, it’s why we lump Pujols in with Aaron Judge’s similarly historic home run pursuit.

Milestones, unlike records, are more likely to be met with enough time. Perhaps Pujols has played well enough to merit a chance to come back next season to go the final mile or two it takes to clear the nice round number. But it wouldn’t have nearly the same magic if it was all but assured, cheapened just a little when it was no longer a true chase and more of a ceremonial send-off. Pujols doesn’t need that. His career has been incredible whether he finishes with 700 home runs or somewhere just short. It will never be better than watching him take meaningful swings so close to the end, and to know he feels satisfied no matter what.

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