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 during the Cardinals’ 11-0 win in Dodger Stadium on Friday night.
The burly St. Louis Cardinals star, who spent most of the past decade with the Angels, sent his milestone blast to left field in the fourth inning against Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford to join Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only players in major league history to hit 700 home runs.
“It’s pretty special,” Pujols said of joining the 700 Club. “When it’s really gonna hit me is when I’m done at end of season and I’m retired, and a month or two after that I can look at numbers.
“Don’t get me wrong, I know where I stand in the game, but since day one, it was never about the numbers. It was always about winning championships and getting better in this game.”
Pujols entered the game two homers shy of 700. He launched No. 699, a two-run blast that traveled 434 feet into the left-field pavilion, off Dodgers left-hander Andrew Heaney in the third inning.
No. 700 came one inning later, when Pujols drove a three-run shot 389 feet into the left-field seats, the night reminiscent of the game in which he hit the 499th and 500th homers of his career for the Angels in Washington on April 22, 2014.
Pujols, who has homered off 455 different pitchers, circled the bases, pointed his index fingers toward the sky and clapped his hands as he crossed home plate, the theme from “The Natural” playing on the public address system.
He was mobbed by teammates in front of the dugout. Fans among a crowd of 50,041, who came to adore him during his five-month stint with the Dodgers last season, chanted his name and demanded a curtain call, and when Pujols obliged, he received a thunderous ovation.
“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.
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.”
Pujols, surrounded by his five kids at a postgame news conference, said the Cardinals had not retrieved the 700th home run ball … yet.
“Souvenirs are for fans,” Pujols said. “If they want to give it back, great, but at the end of the day, I don’t focus on material stuff. I have bat, the uniform, things that are special. If they want to keep that baseball, I don’t have any problem with it.”
Asked what he will say Saturday to Bickford, who delivered the breaking ball that Pujols hit for No. 700, Pujols said, “I will tell him, thanks for hanging that slider.”
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.
“To have my family in town and to do it here in Dodger Stadium, where my joy of this game came back last year being in the postseason and being in this clubhouse, was awesome,” Pujols said. “It was pretty special to do it with the Dodgers fans here.”
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. He’s third in RBIs (2,010), fifth in doubles (685), 10th in hits (3,377) and 12th in runs (1,906). Heaney and Bickford became the 454th and 455th pitchers to give up home runs to Pujols.
“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.”