The Mt. Rushmore of major league sluggers gained a fourth chiseled face—this one with a dark, tightly cropped beard, a seemingly permanent scowl and a gold chain around its neck — when Albert Pujols clubbed the 700th home run of his Hall-of-Fame career at Dodger Stadium on Friday night.
The burly St. Louis Cardinals star, who spent most of the past decade with the Angels, sent the milestone blast into the pavilion in left-center field and joined Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only players in major league history to hit 700 home runs. The home run gave the Cardinals a 5-0 lead over the Dodgers in the fourth inning. He drove in the Cardinals’ first two runs on home run No. 699 in the third inning.
“It’s a number that Babe and Hank set way back when, a number of longevity, of stability, of greatness,” former Cardinals and Oakland Athletics slugger Mark McGwire, who hit 583 career homers, said of Pujols joining the exclusive 700 Club. “But I’m not surprised at all.
“Listen, if he didn’t have those few years in Anaheim where he basically lost his legs, with his knee and foot injuries, we’d be talking about 800 homers, not 700. There’s no question in my mind that he would have blown by Barry’s record.”
Pujols’ assault on 700 was overshadowed by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge’s pursuit of a Triple Crown and Roger Maris’ single-season American League home-run record of 61.
But it captivated St. Louis fans, who rose to their feet with smart phones positioned to capture every one of the 42-year-old’s at-bats in Busch Stadium, and players all around the game.
“Every night, you want to check the box score, and when he hits a home run, everybody’s talking about it,” said Angels center fielder Mike Trout, who played nine-plus years with Pujols in Anaheim.
“It’s crazy. When he was here and passing all the big-name guys, you had to pinch yourself sometimes just to be able to witness it. Seven hundred is a lot of homers. But the way Albert works, the time he puts in, the preparation, the dedication … you just can’t bet against him.”
If Pujols felt any pressure or was getting too wrapped up in the anticipation of hitting No. 700, it did not show before Friday night’s game.
“It’s just another number,” Pujols said. “If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t, then great. I think at the end of the day, I know what I’ve accomplished in this game no matter what the numbers are.”
Pujols’ ascent to 700 near the end of his 22nd and final season continued a late-career renaissance that began after the aging and oft-injured first baseman was released by the Angels in May 2021 with the team failing to win a playoff game over the course of Pujols’ 10-year, $240-million contract.
Pujols, with 667 homers at the time, signed with the Dodgers and hit .254 with a .759 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 85 games as a valuable reserve, including a .953 OPS against lefties, a five-month stint that Pujols said contributed to his decision to play another year.
“The love for the game didn’t go away, but being back in the postseason with an amazing organization was pretty special,” Pujols said. “I thought about retirement last year, but it did kind of change my mind.”
Pujols signed a one-year, $2.5-million deal last March to return to St. Louis, where he was baseball’s most-feared right-handed hitter in the first 11 years of his career, batting .328 with a 1.037 OPS, 445 homers and 1,329 RBIs, winning three National League most valuable player awards and two World Series titles.
Nicknamed “The Machine” because of his consistent production in the first decade of his career, Pujols was more of a spare part this season, relegated to a platoon designated hitter and pinch-hitter role, with most of his starts coming against left-handers.
His sluggish start to 2022 gave little indication he would hit the 21 homers needed to reach 700 — Pujols was batting .189 with a .601 OPS, four homers and 17 RBIs on July 4.
But a slight mechanical adjustment in his swing to eliminate some movement in his hands and produce a shorter path to the ball in early July and a surprising run to the semifinals of the home run derby in Dodger Stadium on July 18 helped fuel a second-half surge.
Pujols hit .315 with a 1.052 OPS, 12 homers and 29 RBIs in 38 from Aug. 10 through Thursday. He had a 1.224 OPS in August, the best in baseball among players with 65 plate appearances or more. He hit five homers in one five-game stretch from Aug. 14-20.
“I think for me, it’s been more special because it almost felt like people forgot about him in Anaheim,” Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker said. “And then he had that resurgent second half last year and was great.
“But to say that you thought this was going to happen? I mean, I’d be lying to you if I said I thought it was going to happen.”
Schumaker, 42, is the same age as Pujols, a former utility man who played with Pujols in St. Louis from 2005-2011 and retired in 2015. Seven years later, Pujols is still crushing home runs, and Schumaker is five years into his coaching career.
“It is amazing,” Schumaker said. “There aren’t many 40-year-olds playing the game, and I think you could talk to some 35-year-olds in the league who feel terrible [physically], right? But I don’t think any of this is surprising anymore.”
Schumaker recalled a recent conversation he had with Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, 35, an NL MVP candidate who entered the weekend series against the Dodgers with a .321 average, 1.003 OPS, 35 homers and 112 RBIs.
“Goldy was saying he hit his 300th career homer [this season], and he’s still 400 homers away [from Pujols],” Schumaker said. “And he’s a pretty good player, right? That puts into perspective where Albert is at. He’s just on another level.”
Few talent evaluators thought Pujols had All-Star, let alone Hall-of-Fame, potential. A native of the Dominican Republic who moved to Missouri as a teenager, Pujols was a 13th-round pick — and 402nd overall selection — of the Cardinals out of Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo. in 1999.
But Pujols shredded minor league pitching in 2000 and hit the ball with such authority in his first big-league camp in 2001 that McGwire told an ESPN reporter that spring that Pujols is “going to the Hall of Fame, no doubt.”
More than two decades later, Pujols ranks fourth on baseball’s all-time home run list despite never hitting 50 homers in a season, third in RBIs (2,205), fifth in doubles (685), 10th in hits (3,375) and 12th in runs (1,904).
“The work ethic I saw on the first day I watched him [in 2001] has never let up,” McGwire said. “And think about the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s made, and it’s never affected the way he went about his business. I really hope the media, baseball fans, really understand the greatness we’ve had in front of us.”
It hasn’t been one long power trip for Pujols, an 11-time All-Star. He had more walks than strikeouts in 10 seasons and has never struck more than 93 times in a year. He won a batting title with a .359 average in 2003. He won two Gold Glove Awards. He stole 16 bases in 2005 and 2009 and 14 in 2010.
“You don’t think of someone hitting 700 homers as a complete player, but he was,” McGwire said. “We’re basically witnessing another Hank Aaron, a line-drive hitter with gap-to-gap power who also never hit 50 homers in a season.
“There’s a reason Albert should be a unanimous, first-ballot Hall-of-Fame selection. If he’s not, there’s something wrong with the system.”