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Albert Pujols came to his 3,000th hit as stubborn as ever, as proud as ever. The years and miles have made the game more challenging, and the man himself still glares, still pokes a tongue at the air, still menaces with deliberate waves of his bat.
None of which helps him turn around a fastball, or tell it from a slider. It does, however, announce his deepest intentions, even at 38 years old, even as he arrives at this career milestone as most do, looking back on the best of themselves. There are nights he plays in the echo of his own hard and heavy footfalls, the echo of MVP seasons and a sporting prime that stands with the finest of his – and most any other – generation.
Still, he is relentless in who he is and what he does. And while that dedication does not as often amount to quite as much, Albert Pujols remains a believer in every day, in every at-bat, in every outcome.
After all, it’s how he got the first 2,999.
In the fifth inning on Friday night, he singled off Seattle pitcher Mike Leake for his 3,000th career hit, 17 years and one month after his first.
He is the 32nd player to reach the milestone, the second – after Adrian Beltre – to have been born in the Dominican Republic, and the fourth to also have at least 600 home runs.
The 13th-round draft pick (signed for $60,000) of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999 became a three-time MVP, a two-time World Series champion and 10-time All Star. He has hit 620 home runs, seventh all time. He has driven in 1,935 runs, ninth all time. He is a career .304 hitter. He has his choice of remarkable, therefore.
On a recent day at Angel Stadium, he pointed to a large tote board beyond right-center field that counted him toward 3,000. He said that was the number he’d be most proud of, as the small list of players above him includes his friend and mentor, long-time St. Louis Cardinal Stan Musial, and Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican outfielder who, en route to assisting earthquake victims in Nicaragua, died in a plane crash.
The number counts for ability and longevity and commitment, and the attention required across more than 11,000 plate appearances. Alongside 620 home runs, the number counts toward the extremely rare combination of power and selectivity. In 10 consecutive seasons, Pujols walked more often than he struck out. In those seasons, he averaged 188 hits and 41 home runs and batted .328. So, Hank Aaron had 3,771 hits and 755 home runs, Alex Rodriguez had 3,115 and 696, Willie Mays had 3,283 and 660. And Pujols, under contract for three years after this one, will cut into some of those career totals.
With health and a soft decline, Pujols could finish his career third all-time in home runs, behind Barry Bonds and Aaron, and sixth in hits, behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Aaron, Musial and Tris Speaker.
Also, with a productive final five months, Pujols could reach 2,000 career RBIs, fifth all-time behind Aaron, Babe Ruth, Rodriguez and Cap Anson.
The hits, he said in the days before reaching 3,000, and the RBIs will go a long way toward defining Pujols in the batter’s box.
“One, it’s a lot of hits,” he said. “Two, there’s not a lot of people – for as many players who played this game in the big leagues – there’s not many who have accomplished that. Out of 21,000 major league players in the history of the game? I think that number, out of the 600 home runs, 600 doubles, RBIs and all that stuff, I think that 3,000 … Two things, I won’t lie to you. That 3,000 and 2,000 RBIs, those two numbers are something that are really, really going to be pretty special. I’m a long ways to the 2,000. Hopefully I can get those this year.
“Especially, you know, that’s how you win games, driving guys in. The 3,000 club, it’s pretty special. To be No. 32 and put your name with so many legends in the game, it’ll be awesome. That’s always been a number. That’s kind of the big number that everybody wants to hit. Like 500 home runs.”
This is what comes of the pursuit for a little better, from Santo Domingo on, from Maple Woods Community College on, from April 2, 2001 on. He’s 3,000 hits in, not done yet, and still chasing the next at-bat. The next hit. All the echoes.