Just more than 13 years ago, Albert Pujols hadn't hit a big-league home run. He hadn't had a big-league hit.
A 13th-round draft pick, 402nd overall, he'd spent a summer in the minor leagues, 133 games worth. He'd had a spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe he'd go to Triple-A. Maybe, just maybe, though it nagged some at their core beliefs about the game, that 13th-rounders don't play one summer of pro ball and win a big-league job, Pujols would break camp with manager Tony La Russa and the Cardinals.
Mark McGwire, then 37, had one season left in him. He watched Pujols in February, watched him closer in March, and when he heard Pujols might be sent out, as he recalled it Tuesday, he went straight to La Russa.
"That might be one of the worst mistakes of your career," he said he told his manager.
Now, whether McGwire had that sort of organizational pull, even that McGwire at that time, is open to conjecture. (Bobby Bonilla did suffer a hamstring injury at about the same time.) But that's how he remembers it, and standing Tuesday afternoon in a hallway at Dodger Stadium at about the time Pujols hit the 499th home run of his career, McGwire was just as passionate about the 21-year-old who refused to be average.
"It wasn't that hard to see," McGwire said. "One player like this is born every 25 to 30 years."
He spread his arms and raised his eyebrows, as if still making his case to have Albert Pujols open the season as the Cardinals' left fielder, right fielder, third baseman, whatever came.
"It wasn't hard to see at all," McGwire said. "And it's exactly what he's done."
An hour later, Pujols hit No. 500.
Twenty-six men, including Pujols, have hit 500 home runs. All kinds of men. All kinds of eras. Some, it's what they did, why they went to work; they hit home runs. Others, the home runs seemed a consequence of the rest of their game. The home runs came with the daily pursuit of the perfect swing, the reliable glove, the secondary lead, the big jump. But, maybe, mostly, the perfect swing.
And so 13 years and 20 days after his first major-league game, 13 years and 16 days since his first home run (at Bank One Ballpark in Arizona, against Armando Reynoso), Pujols approached the batter's box at Nationals Park. Mike Trout was at first base. Four-ninety-nine had come four innings earlier, at the end of two weeks that had seen Pujols' power swing re-engage and Nos. 493 through 499 result.
For those weeks, and the couple months before that, Pujols had avoided the conversation of the coming 500, a number that once opened the door to the Hall of Fame, that separated the great from the legends. And so it was not at all surprising to have Pujols approach and pass the milestone at a good pace, and with a certain distance. He is proud of these numbers, of the consistency they represent, and the championships that came with them. It is not, however, his preference to sit in awe of them. There are other milestones coming. More, there are games to prepare for and play, and still those championships to chase, and the man honors the process of getting them like few to play the game.
The pitcher Tuesday night in Washington was young right-hander Taylor Jordan, in the 13th start of his career. He trailed in the game, 4-2. Trout was a pest, and Jordan threw to first several times. He threw a first pitch strike to Pujols, then threw a ball, then Pujols just missed a fastball, and the moment seemed it would only end a single way.
Pujols stiff-armed his half-swing warm-ups. He settled into his legs thickly, as if taking root in the batter's box. He pointed his chin at Jordan, ran his tongue over his lips. A dense and shiny chain dangled from his neck. Jordan threw a fastball, middle away.
The Rawlings ball with the "P" on it, "P" for Pujols, so baseball officials could track this No. 500, howled over Jordan's head, arced as it carried over the outfield and landed in the bleachers. The Los Angeles Angels – teammates, coaches – charged up the stairs to the field, where they greeted Pujols at the plate en masse. Pujols granted their high-fives, and in an utterly Pujols move, was the first to return to the dugout. Before he did, he lifted his helmet to an appreciative crowd, and then even returned for a curtain call.
At 34, Pujols had joined the other 25. Behind them for now, but the journey is not done, and still the names ring out: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey, Robinson, Jackson, Williams.
Pujols with the guy who caught 499 (left) and 500 (right). pic.twitter.com/mg7Ltet1Ek— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) April 23, 2014
For a decade, more, Pujols was with the best we'd ever seen, and here he is again. One player like this, McGwire had said so long ago, every 25 or 30 years.
"The home runs are just part of the player he is," said McGwire, who later became Pujols' hitting coach in St. Louis. "I saw it in 2001 and when I got back in 2010 and I still see it now. Nothing surprised me."