ST. PETERSBURG — History was made Thursday at Tropicana Field. With a single in the seventh inning against the Rays, 24-year-old Los Angeles Angels two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani became the first Japanese player to hit for the cycle in the major leagues.
Before being taken to a two-language news conference, Ohtani was escorted to the showers by teammates and doused with beer. In keeping with the family theme, Ohtani’s interpreter was also given a beer shower.
Albert Pujols stood at his locker and watched Ohtani get paraded out of the showers. Pujols smiled.
“I’m happy for him,” Pujols said. “He deserves a night like this.”
Pujols has lived many such nights in his 19 years in the majors, including two championship nights for his old team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Barring a voting mix-up or Russian interference, he is a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame.
There aren’t many of those playing in baseball. It just happens to be that one of them dresses just a few feet from Pujols in the Angels clubhouse: Mike Trout, the team’s 27-year-old superstar, baseball’s best player, the WAR horse.
But once in while, even now, clearly on the back side of his career (.238, 12 homers, 37 RBIs this season), even in the shadow of Trout, Pujols can remind us of days when he was the most feared hitter in baseball, wide stance, bat held high, ready to menace. Thursday was like that. Pujols turned on a 1-1 pitch from Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough and drove it 427 feet, into the leftfield seats, a two-run shot that spelled the difference in the Angels’ 5-3 win.
It was another milestone for Pujols, his 200th homer for Los Angeles, to go with the 445 he hit for St. Louis, making him just the sixth player to hit 200 or more homers for two different teams. No beer shower, just another brick in Pujols’ Hall wall.
“When you’ve been around for a while, that happens,” he said with a grin.
The man has done more than just outlasted everyone. He is a two-time world champion, three-time MVP, an NL batting champion, a .301 career average, sixth all time in homers with 645, eighth all time with 649 doubles, with a career OPA of .933 and a career WAR of 100.3.
Pujols’ 10-page bio in the Angels media guide leaves you exhausted. He is only the fourth player to have 600 homers, 2,000 RBIs and 3,000 hits, along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez. He is one of those guys who fans should remember watching.
Pujols’ teammates are way ahead of them.
“He’s a mentor,” said Trout, who joined the Angels in 2012, Pujols’ first season in Anaheim. “He’s been through everything. Everybody sees how good of a player he is. He’s even a better person and teammate. He could easily have shut it down the last couple of seasons with all the injuries. He never has.”
“It’s a blessing,” Pujols said. “I thank God for the career I’ve had, 19 years, day in and day out, to be able to grind every day. It’s crazy, man. Nothing is given to you. You have to earn it every day. I’ve thought that from Day 1.”
It’s important to remember the Pujols of 20 years ago to understand the man he became. Trout was touted, a first-round draft pick. Pujols was on the bottom of the barrel, a 19-year-old thick body who couldn’t get a bite in the 1999 draft. Even the Cardinals picked 15 other players before choosing Pujols in the 13th round, 400 names in. Among the notables that passed: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They didn’t know what to do with the kid. Here are two men that kid passed this season on the way to 2,000 RBIs: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig.
No hard feelings.
“I was going to take advantage of whoever gave me the opportunity,” Pujols said. “The Cardinals were that team, fortunately. I always had that chip on my shoulder, but I never felt I had to prove anything to anybody.”
Pujols’ signing bonus was a little more than $50,000.
“It was pretty small,” he said with a smile. “But it doesn’t matter. I have my share right now.”
There are people who hoot and holler at Pujols’ Angels contract, 10 years, $254 million back in 2012, and how it weighed down the franchise, which has only made the playoffs once under Pujols and Trout. By the way, Trout received a 12-year, $430 million deal in March.
It’s time to get over it and appreciate Pujols. He returns to St. Louis next weekend, his first games at Busch Stadium since he left the Cardinals. It’s a matter of debate as to whether he will be cheered or booed by St. Louis fans. But his kind of greatness should be applauded wherever he goes. We don’t know how many times he’ll be back through St. Pete.
“He still treats it like he wants to be the best every day,” Angels outfielder Tommy La Stella said. “In high school and college, I used to try and break down Albert’s swing, try to emulate it in some small way. You get up here and you find out: There’s one Albert. And we got to play with him.''
Pujols is here this weekend. He should be seen, if even for old time’s sake, in the name of greatness, in the name of a guy who beat the odds, who will have a Hall of Fame plaque to prove it.
Put this on the plaque:
“For sure, I enjoy every moment every day,” Pujols said. “Every day I put a uniform on, it’s an honor.”
Wonder if they give beer showers in Cooperstown.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.