- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How would you like to be Albert Pujols right now? I’m not talking about his 22 homers in the Cardinals’ first 44 games; anybody would like to be that Albert Pujols. I’m talking about all the suspicion swirling around baseball, all the doubt Prince Albert has to deal with.

“I’m sick and tired of people saying it, that I’m not 26,” he said after belting another one out of the park Sunday. “I know how old I am, and I know that I don’t use any of those bad things people are talking about that I use.”

Our “national pastime” has become the Game That Can’t Be Trusted. Fans have a hard time deciding what’s real anymore. The media guide says Pujols was born Jan. 16, 1980, in the Dominican Republic, but we’ve all heard the jokes about Dominican birth certificates. He could just as easily have been born Jan. 19, 1680. (Which would really be a story.)

So when someone says Pujols has more home runs at this age (223) than Hank Aaron (219 by his 27th birthday) — and nearly twice as many as Barry Bonds (117) — we say, “What age would that be? Does even Albert know for sure?”

And when someone starts swatting homers at a near-record rate, one that far exceeds his previous output, our antennae go up again. We wonder whether the slugger isn’t slipping some Human Growth Hormone into his pregame meal, whether he isn’t taking something the drug-testers haven’t caught up with yet.

Such is the climate in baseball today. It’s not that the players are presumed guilty, it’s just that they’re no longer presumed innocent — the way they were in the old days. The whole Age Thing is small potatoes, a bookkeeping matter, mostly. Who cares whether Pujols is doing this at 26, 27 or whatever? I mean, the man is putting up Lou Gehrig-type numbers.

But are the numbers totally legitimate? That’s what a lot of folks are wondering — and that’s the fallout from the andro/BALCO/Congressional hearings scandal. Pujols could be as clean as a just-out-of-the-box baseball, but his accomplishments will still be questioned because, well, that’s the world we live in now.

And it’s a world created by Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco and others of their ilk. That, ultimately, is their legacy. Instead of bringing glory to the game, they brought skepticism.

Pujols should be enjoying this ride, this transformation from Terrific All-Around Hitter to Slugger For The Ages. Unfortunately for him, it comes at a time when home run totals in the major leagues are beginning to spike up again. Through Sunday’s games, no fewer than nine teams were on pace to hit 200 homers. Included in that group were the Nationals, who a year ago needed a catapult to get the ball out of RFK Stadium.

Yes, Alfonso Soriano’s big bat has been added to the Washington lineup, but there’s clearly more to it than that. And since the dimensions of RFK haven’t changed, it’s only natural to speculate about whether MLB is injecting the baseballs with steroids — to keep them flying over the fence. It’s in the game’s interest, after all, that it not return to the days of the stolen base and the hit and run. Everybody loves the long ball, not just chicks.

But if that’s the case, the owners must think we’re dummies. They must think we’ll see all these balls landing in the seats — deposited there by players who have passed drug inspection — and say, “Maybe steroids weren’t the match that set off the home run explosion. Maybe it would have happened anyway.” Sorry, gents, but it’s too late for such revisionism.

What’s done can’t be undone by Albert Pujols hitting 22 homers in 44 games. It can’t be undone, either, by Pujols sticking up for Bonds, telling fans to “give him a break” and to “respect the numbers … he has put up.” (It’s interesting, though, that he told them to respect “the numbers” rather than the man.)

By going to bat for Bonds, all Pujols does is lump himself in with him, and that’s the last thing any player should want. Why in the world would Albert do it? Doesn’t he realize that if it weren’t for Barry and his kind, his life would be infinitely more pleasurable, that he wouldn’t have to keep insisting to a questioning public that “I don’t use any of those bad things people are talking about that I use”?

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