The swing remains a thing of beauty, the same as when Albert Pujols arrived at spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals 13 years ago and forced his way onto the big league roster despite just one year of pro experience.
On Tuesday night at Nationals Park, Pujols, 34 years old now and playing for the Los Angeles Angels, turned on a fifth-inning fastball that Washington rookie pitcher Taylor Jordan left over the heart of the plate. He launched a majestic home run into an aisle next to the red seats in center field, the 500th of his career, his second of the game in a 7-2 Angels’ victory over the Nats.
Only two men – Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx – have hit more homers at a younger age.
“It was probably the best swing I’ve taken this year so far,” Pujols said. “It came at a good time.”
Pujols’ teammates poured out of the dugout to greet him as he trotted around the bases. The road crowd at Nationals Park gave him a standing ovation and asked for a curtain call after Pujols disappeared into the dugout. He jumped out, waved his cap and saluted the cheers. This stadium had been good to Pujols. He hit his 400th career home run here, too, on Aug. 26, 2010.
“It’s a huge milestone in the grand scheme of baseball,” Nats manager Matt Williams said. “You don’t want it to happen against you, for sure. But I admire the man, I admire his ability and the way he goes about playing the game, and I have for some time. I just wish he’d do it against someone else.”
Pujols, a native of the Dominican Republic, played high school baseball in obscurity in Missouri and two years of junior college ball in Kansas City. He was drafted in the 13th round of the 1999 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. One year of minor-league experience and a brilliant spring training in 2001 was enough to convince the Cardinals they had a star in their hands.
Before the game, while hitting in the batting cage, Pujols told a few teammates that he felt “a special night” coming. When that actually came to pass, he quickly spoke to his wife, Deidre, by phone.
She found out while getting her nails done at a salon back home in California. Her husband sheepishly apologized. Deidre Pujols had planned on joining her husband when the Angels’ road trip reached New York on Friday. But before dealing with the barrage of text messages left on his cell phone, Pujols had two important people to reach.
“Call [former Cardinals manager] Tony [LaRussa] and [general manager] Walt Jocketty,” Pujols said. “Those guys that believe in me since big league camp [in 2001], they stay behind me and give me the opportunity even when Tony wanted to send me down and the rest of the team was like ‘What are you doing trying to send this guy down? You didn’t see what kind of spring training he has?’”
Pujols, a three-time NL most valuable player, a two-time World Series champion, laughed at the memory as he needled his former manager, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
“Albert’s had a great career,” Nats outfielder Jayson Werth said. “You never enjoy seeing other people hitting home runs off you, but that’s a special moment in the game. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
In the first inning Pujols hit a 1-1 change-up down the line in left field. He has eight home runs early in the 2014 season. That 500th homer came on a 1-2 fastball from Jordan, a rookie in his first full season in the majors.
“My career hasn’t been perfect,” Pujols said. “But my goal is I always enjoy the game no matter what. I take my job seriously. You guys see me every day. I’m so serious. I know sometimes people can read me wrong because I feel that when I’m on my work my goal is to get myself ready to help those guys to win and to accomplish our goal, which is to win a championship.”