By ROSS NEWHAN
The introduction of the designated hitter, extending many careers, and the widespread abuse of performance enhancing drugs, tainting many, has bit into the impact of the long coveted 3,000 hit and 500 home run plateaus.
However, in the case of Albert Pujols, still primarily a first baseman at 34 and exempt from PED implication except for Jack Clark's legally challenged hearsay accusation (costing Clark his radio job), 500 homers are 500 homers, an honorable accomplishment that alone should secure first ballot election to the Hall of Fame except for the fact there is no longer any certainty to a process that needs restructuring.
Pujols, of course, has an array of other Hall worthy statistics going for him, and if the first month of his third season with the Angels is an indication, rebounding from the heel injury of last year and with seven more seasons remaining on his $240 million contract, he is likely to scale other heights.
For one, that other magic number of 3,000 hits is easily within contract reach, and he is going to continue up the home run ladder, possibly even passing Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron at the top if remaining reasonably healthy.
At 26th, he is the third youngest to reach 500 behind the tarnished Alex Rodriguez and the very honorable Jimmie Foxx.
With a major league leading eight homers in 20 games (plus 19 RBI) he is on an improbable pace for 64 and 152. If he goes on to hit a more reasonable 40 this year he will rank 16th on the all-time list. If he averages 30 over the ensuing season seasons he will be at 750 and trailing only the injected Bonds at 762 and Aaron at 755. If he averages 32 for the seven seasons he will pass both.
As it is, he should join Babe Ruth, Foxx and the PED scarred Manny Ramirez this year as the only players with 12 seasons of 30 homers and 100 RBI, with only A-Rod having more at 14.
I have made the point previously that with better decisions and investments over the last six or seven years--retaining Mike Napoli, signing Adrian Beltre, rejecting Gary Mitchell Jr. and Vernon Wells, going the distance to keep Zack Greinke after giving up top prospect Jean Segura to get him-- the Angels could have avoided the potentially wallet strapping commitment to Pujols at 31 and the ensuing, $125 million deal with Josh Hamilton at 31.
The Pujols and Hamilton expenditures certainly played a role in the off-season decision by Arte Moreno to draw a payroll line at the luxury tax threshold of $179 and not spend big on much needed pitching.
That withdrawl could prove costly. Three-fifths of the rotation is unproven, and the Angel staff is dangerously thin with little in minor league reserve.
Can Pujols maintain his April shower of hits and homers? Can Hamilton regain his pre-injury stroke? Both questions would seem to require a positive response if the Angels are going to end their four year playoff drought in a strengthened West Division.
Tomorrow is tomorrow, however, and the moment belongs to Pujols and his milestone accomplishment in a milestone career.
A Happy 100th Birthday today to Wrigley Field. Always a happy stop for a former beat guy.