As Albert Pujols settled into the batter’s box in the first inning Friday, his personalized home run counter above the right-field stands read 599.
This was one of the moments Angels owner Arte Moreno envisioned when he signed Pujols six winters ago. Pujols didn’t deliver history in this at-bat — or, on this night, for that matter — but he will soon.
Except you wonder if Moreno read the fine print at the bottom of the contract. There, in invisbile ink, it’s stated clearly: History is non-transferable.
Whenever or wherever Pujols launches home run No. 600, the milestone will belong to him and to him alone. The Angels won’t have a claim on it. Moments can’t be purchased, not even for $250 million.
Which explains why more than half of the seats at Angel Stadium were vacant when Pujols made his first plate appearance. Large patches of seats remained unoccupied throughout the game. They were the previous nights, too. Only this was a Friday. On a night when fans received free plush Rally Monkeys.
In their hearts, Angels fans know the truth. Pujols’ history isn’t theirs. Their common past is one of frustration, with Pujols fighting the effects of his advanced age and fans upset his contract prevents the team from building a winner around Mike Trout.
As a result, there is shockingly little fanfare as the greatest offensive baseball player of his generation pursues a benchmark reached by only eight others.
La Russa managed Pujols on the St. Louis Cardinals, the team for which Pujols hit his first 445 home runs. In a perfect world, that’s where Pujols would be now, chasing history in front of the same fans who watched him break into the major leagues 16 years ago.
“He was such a special part of the Cardinals,” La Russa said.
La Russa mentioned how the Cardinals’ history of homegrown players, a history that includes the likes of Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Pujols could have been one of them.
“It’s unfortunate,” La Russa said of Pujols’ departure from the Cardinals.
Pujols won two World Series and three MVP awards in St. Louis. If he had hit his 600th home run there, the celebration would have been about more than that moment. However he was performing, wherever the team was in the standings, the city would have been thanking him for nearly two decades of memories.
Pujols had no interest in exploring this alternate universe.
“Flip the page, man,” Pujols said. “It’s been six years.”
La Russa didn’t want to assign blame for the breakup.
“I just think how the Cardinals look at their situation, they’re very smart about how they make their commitments,” he said. “They didn’t think they could afford him. Then it looked like they could.”
By then, however, Pujols had already received the kind of commitment he wanted from the Angels, who offered him a 10-year deal.
“I want to make sure the fans don’t blame Albert,” La Russa said.
La Russa said he was confident Angels fans would do right by Pujols, that they would recognize the magnitude of the upcoming achievement and celebrate it as such.
“I think the milestone stands alone, no matter what the uniform,” La Russa said.
However, that, too, has been diminished. Of the eight players with 600-plus home runs, five played in baseball’s so-called Steroid Era, each of them reaching the milestone some time in the last 16 seasons.
It’s unfortunate, if only because it shortchanges a magnificent career. While Pujols the Angel hasn’t produced like Pujols the Cardinal, he has continued to demonstrate the same determination that made him one of the game’s greats.
“Albert’s more than a 600th home run,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “This guy is probably the toughest ballplayer I’ve ever seen, being able to go out there and play at 50% and still be extremely productive. What he means to the team in the dugout, in the clubhouse, you can see why he’s been a winner his whole career.”
Only that’s not what the fans here see — or, more precisely, what they remember.