July 4, 2009

Tom Robinson, of, rightfully sang the praises of Albert Pujols, “Baseball fans in Atlanta on April 27 and in Milwaukee exactly one month later might not have known they’d witnessed something especially rare. No, not a sea gull beaned by a base hit, or even a victory by the Washington Nationals.                                              
Let it be noted that on those days in recent history, mighty Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals struck out twice.                                                                                                     
Now, you might ask, the world didn’t stop turning, did it? Nobody wrote a poem about it.                                                                                                                               How come a double-K day for Pujols is such a big darn deal?                                    
Here’s why. Because big-league baseball is a sport of smallish ballparks now. Chiseled – if not pharmaceutical – physiques. Ungodly contracts paid for power numbers.                                                                                                                             They are circumstances that routinely induce big hitters into reckless swings, even though another fairly modern development conspires against them – a parade of fresh, 90-mph-plus arms to the mound each game.                                                                                      
Yet, in this overheated climate, Pujols shines as a marvel, a genuine bat-to-ball star.               
That is, Pujols trudges away from home plate so few times, yet trots around the bases so often, he has been known to threaten a forgotten
big-league standard – finishing a season with more home runs than strikeouts.                                                                             
One of those seasons is upon us again.                                                                                   
Pujols took a major league-leading 30 home runs, but just 32 strikeouts, into Wednesday’s game against San Francisco. That first stat established Pujols, twice the National League MVP, as the only player to hit 30 in his first nine big league seasons.     But by fanning just twice more than he has gone deep, Pujols is toeing a line that has been crossed only by George Brett and Barry Bonds in the past 50 years.                   
Back when the notion of making contact at least appeared to matter more, Joe DiMaggio, for example, collected more homers than strikeouts seven times over a full season. Amazingly, DiMaggio totaled only eight more Ks (369) than home runs (361) over his career.                                                                                                                               
Ted Williams, a 500-home run hitter, did it three times. Stan Musial, almost a 500-clubber, once. Hank Aaron? Never, but he came close, just as Pujols did in’04 – 46 home runs against 52 strikeouts – and ’06 – 49 and 50.                                                                     
This proves what, exactly? Just what we should already know – that Pujols, at 29, is as pure and powerful a hitter as we have today for our viewing pleasure.                                   
His swing is dangerously beautiful in its quiet efficiency and sudden violence; silent hands, a spare lift of his front (left) foot, forceful hips and flashing hands,followed by consistent contact to admire.                                                                                           
This season, by contrast, the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, a justifiably feared power source, has fanned at least three times in 10 games. Collectively, the four men
closest to Pujols in the major league home run race – Adrian Gonzalez, Carlos Pena, Raul Ibanez and Virginia Beach’s Mark Reynolds – have wallowed in 26
three-to-four K parties.                
Pujols, on the other hand, hasn’t endured a triple-whiffer since August – only the eighth of a career that started in ’01. He just finished a June in which he tied his career mark for home runs in a month, 14. And the 35 runs he drove in last month are a personal best.                                                                                    Fans in Pujols’ time are fortunate. Be mindful, though,to not take him for granted. Nor, hard as it might be at the moment, to regard him cynically, as if waiting for a proverbial shoe to drop, a la Bonds, Ramirez,
A-Rod, et al.                                                                 
Happily, no smoke circles around Pujols’ name, other than the clean vapor of wood upon leather.”

Sources around the Cubs felt the season was in the balance last Saturday when Milton Bradley, sent home by a furious Lou Piniella the previous night, arrived at the park. Urged to show up early by supportive teammate Derrek Lee, Bradley did so and slipped into Piniella’s office. “I have to admit, I shed some tears in there with him — and so did he,” Bradley said after the meeting was over. “I’ve got a ton of respect for Lou. To me, he’s my Phil Jackson. We had a heartfelt talk, and I think we’re both better for it. I would like to think I’m growing up and getting a little more mature.” Bradley’s volatile temperament will undoubtedly
surface again, but it seems he handled this crisis rather well. Mad Milton and Sweet Lou in tears? What an image.


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