The 1995 Cleveland Indians were designed in a laboratory so young kids could watch them on Fox’s Saturday matinee, then run out into the backyard with a bat and a tennis ball, pretending to be them. Those Indians scored runs in avalanches, and each player had something special about him—Omar Vizquel’s glove, Kenny Lofton’s speed, Carlos Baerga’s batting stance, Dennis Martínez’s mustache, Orel Hershiser’s glasses, Jim Thome’s avuncular lumberjack aesthetic, which he’d already cultivated by age 24. José Mesa, Manny Ramírez, and especially Albert Belle just had an aura.
Then there was the team’s veteran DH, Eddie Murray. I don’t remember much of him, except the image of him sitting on the bench, mustachioed and stoic, looking like a cop, particularly next to the choleric Belle and the rambunctious Ramírez. Murray hit .323/.375/.516 that year, his age-39 season, and one of his 141 hits was no. 3,000 for his career. The next year he started off slowly: .262/.326/.417, and in July Cleveland traded him to Baltimore, where he’d started his career, for Kent Mercker. Murray hit 10 home runs in 64 games with the Orioles, the ninth of which was his 500th.
The two big round-number, Hall of Fame gatekeeper milestones for a hitter are 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. Before Murray, only two players had reached the summit for both power hitters and hitters, period: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. I could give you some arbitrary “top-however-many-player-of-all-time” grouping for Aaron and Mays, but they’re fucking Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. You know.
Murray, the first switch-hitter to get to 500 and 3,000, is an obvious Hall of Famer, an excellent hitter over his 21-year career. He won the AL Rookie of the Year and the 1983 World Series, and made eight All-Star teams. But for an all-time-great hitter he never led the league in hits or batting average, and for an all-time-great power hitter he never hit more than 33 home runs in a season. His only home run title came in the strike-shortened 1981 season, when he hit 22 home runs in 99 games.
Today, that 500/3,000 club has six members: Aaron and Mays were all-time greats, Alex Rodriguez was scarred by PED usage, Murray was a compiler, and Rafael Palmeiro was both a compiler and scarred by PEDs.
And now we can add Albert Pujols, who was great enough in his youth to be mentioned with Aaron and Mays, but is a faint shadow of the player he once was. He joined the 3,000-hit club with a single off of Mike Leake in the fifth inning of Friday’s game.
Pujols is no Eddie Murray. In fact, despite overlapping with A-Rod, Barry Bonds, and Mike Trout, he dominated baseball through his 20s in a way few players ever have. Through his age-30 season, Pujols posted a 172 OPS+, which tied him with Mickey Mantle for the sixth-highest mark of all time.
Watching Pujols with the Cardinals was a strange experience. There he was, right in front of you, and yet you knew that in 50 years, the sequel to Ken Burns’s Baseball would feature one-shots of that generation’s Buck O’Neil, Billy Crystal, and Dan Okrent sitting in a library, wearing sweaters, and describing the feeling of watching Pujols play. But like Babe Ruth, his greatness only remains in archival footage. Time and plantar fasciitis have transformed Pujols from a bearlike third baseman to an oil-rig-like first baseman, and now a DH who’s limited and just kind of sad.
His free-agent move from the Cardinals to the Angels formed a watershed moment in his biography, the way Ken Griffey Jr.’s trade to Cincinnati did for him. For a while, Pujols was a pretty good DH in Los Angeles, but as he charges through counting milestones, he’s in danger of losing some of the statistical markers that set him apart from even other future Hall of Famers. Until last year, Pujols was one of just 21 position players in baseball history to reach 100 bWAR. A minus-1.8-win season in 2017 pulled Pujols back below that threshold, with more negative-value seasons likely to come. While his career OPS+ was once sixth among hitters with 3,000 career PA, tied with Mickey Mantle, Pujols is now all the way back down to a four-way tie for 31st, with, among others, Gavvy Cravath. One of the most marvelous things about Pujols is that he’s a power hitter who walks more than he strikes out, despite playing in the most strikeout-heavy era in the game’s history. But Pujols is now in his seventh straight season with more strikeouts than walks, and if he plays out his contract, he’ll almost certainly end his career having struck out more than walked.
If this feels insufficiently laudatory for a player of Pujols’s stature, on the night of his latest historic achievement, that’s only because Pujols has been in decline long enough now that we’ve already eulogized him. Pujols had his last hurrah all the way back in 2015, and he erased the last smidgen of doubt on his inner-circle Hall of Fame credentials with his 600th home run last year.
It’s not like Pujols owes us a storybook ending, either. For starters, he still has a lot to play for: three years and $87 million left on his contract after this season, which is a lot of money, even for someone who’s already made $230 million. And with Trout, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, and Shohei Ohtani on his team, he has a shot at another World Series, which is still meaningful, even if you’ve already been there three times and won it all twice.
That’s to say nothing of the fact that the Angels, if they truly believed Pujols had outstayed his welcome, could have released him or worked out a deal to move him into an ambassadorial role, as the Yankees did with A-Rod and the Mariners just did on Thursday with Ichiro. But the Angels are not only keeping him on the roster, they’re starting him, and not only starting him but batting him cleanup. Contrast that to Mays in 1973—he hit just .211/.303/.344, but the Mets used him as a fourth outfielder and backup first baseman, and he retired after the season. Pujols is in his second season of replacement-level play, and on track for three more after this, and he’s still in the lineup every day.
While recently retired legends like David Ortiz, Mariano Rivera, and Chipper Jones all called it quits while they still had something to contribute on the field, that’s far from the norm. Aaron, Mays, and even Babe Ruth all played out the string well into their athletic dotage, each of them even after the teams they’d made their names with could no longer find a place for them. The last days of Pujols’s career are no sadder than Mays’s time with the Mets or Steve Carlton’s itinerant post-Phillies epilogue.
Every major league ballplayer has his own reasons for continuing to face the meat grinder of an MLB regular season, and every ballplayer has his own reasons for calling it quits, if the decision is even left up to him. If it’s pride, so be it—every definition of pride, from vanity to stubbornness to arrogance, is exalted in athletes when they’re young. The same with the single-minded drive that it takes to be great at something, but can also blind an athlete to his own failings. A player who’s achieved as much as Pujols has earned the right to continue to play as long as he wishes, and as long as he can find a manager who’ll write his name into the lineup. And the patience with which the baseball world has watched his decline shows that we broadly agree.
Athletes perform for the entertainment of others, but they don’t perform for our benefit. We don’t get to choose when to say goodbye—we get to applaud at moments like this 3,000th hit, when the awkwardness of age is pierced briefly by the glory of achievement. And if Pujols doesn’t seem like the same man now as the young star we once revered, he will again soon enough, when he takes his place not only in Cooperstown, but among Ruth, Aaron, and Mays as the greatest baseball players ever. When that day comes, we’ll remember that old feeling as clearly as ever.