If you stare too long, you can undermine a milestone. It necessarily takes a lot of years and toil to get to, say, 3,000 hits or 300 wins, and by the time our beloved ballplayer gets there, he's not what he used to be. He's graying at the temples. He lumbers. He's a bit more pear-shaped than he once was. He's probably not very good anymore. Time is a fire in which we burn, Delmore Schwartz reminded us.
This is Albert Pujols In 2017, you could call him a waste of the $26 million he's being paid. If you did that, you'd be uncharitable, but you wouldn't be wrong. If you're young enough or new to This, Our Baseball, then maybe your memories of Pujols are too recent, and the somewhat cloddish present crowds out how we ought to remember El Hombre. Sure, getting to 600 home runs in and of itself evokes past brilliance, but Pujols' descent in tandem with his signing one of the largest free agent contracts in history has conspired against legacy.
Let's not let that happen ...
Click on through and admire the almost habitual brilliance of Pujols over his first decade in the majors. He never struck out 100 times. He never batted worse than .312. Just twice did his OPS dip below 1.000. He never scored fewer than 99 runs, never drove in fewer than 103. His worst home run total was 32. When his doubles dipped to 33 in 2006, he offset it (and then some) by clouting 49 homers, all while striking on just 50 occasions. Despite being banged up plenty over the years, he went on the DL just twice during the years chronicled above on that Topps card.
Look at Mike Trout's card and you see that initial cup of coffee in which he struggled badly. Look at Bryce Harper's and you see wild swings on either side of a brilliant center. Not even Willie Mays and Hank Aaron achieved Pujols-grade excellence at the outset of their careers. Ted Williams would've, but war got in the way. When trying to summon up fellow travelers for Pujols' first decade, those are the names we invoke -- Mays, Aaron, Williams.
Sure, Pujols these days is a stew of strikeouts and creaking hinges, leavened only by his occasionally running into one. The outsized paychecks are the fault of ownership who surveyed a first baseman in his thirties, already showing signs of decline, and deemed him worthy of almost a quarter billion dollars. However, the sturdy foundation of those 600 homers is as essential as the 600th homer itself.
I can personally testify that he was once upon a time the kind of player who could make you leap up and spill half a plate of nachos and two-thirds of a beer on your couch ...
It's been a few years, and the couch is as gone as that baseball -- as gone as the Albert Pujols who could do things like that with tidal reliability.
You used to hear fans of a certain age mourn that there were those out there who remembered Mays only from his decrepit and bumbling final season with the Mets. This is a similar lamentation. If you don't remember Albert Pujols when he was his vintage self, when he was much more than he is now, then stare a bit more at that card.
He was something, wasn't he?