People keep saying “Poor St. Louis” but I say “Poor Houston.” They’ve had to suffer in the same division with Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball since 2001, and a man whose career OPS currently ranks sixth all-time, fifth if you discount Barry Bonds, just a hair behind Jimmie Foxx, leaving only the holy trinity of baseball hitting—Ruth, Williams, Gehrig—ahead of him.
Not only have the Houston Astros had to suffer Pujols—whose team, the Cardinals, they play more often because of baseball’s unbalanced schedule—they had to suffer his most famous homerun, that 3-run moonshot off of Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. There weren’t two strikes on him or anything—it was an 0-1 count—but almost everything else was absurdly, almost comically, dramatic. The Astros were leading 3 games to 1, and were ahead 4-2 in the ninth inning, with two outs and nobody on and the best closer in the National League, Lidge, on the mound. Then David Eckstein squeaked out a groundball single to left. Then somehow Lidge walked Jim Edmonds to get to Pujols. That’s gotta be the dumbest walk in baseball history.
Still, the ‘Stros were one out away from its first World Series. One measly out.
Then Albert did what he did.
I was watching the game in my apartment in south Minneapolis near Lake of the Isles, chatting via email, pre-Facebook, with several baseball-loving friends around the country. I might’ve even been on the phone with one of them when Lidge left his slider up on 0-1.
The post-season is full of dramatic homeruns—Thomson, Mazeroski, Bench, Carbo and Fisk, Hendu, Gibson, Puckett— and some were come-from-behind, and some were in the ninth inning, or extra innings, or with two outs in an elimination game for the batting team, as this game was for the Cardinals, but none of them was ever so powerfully punctuated. I remember when the ball banged off that upper facade in left field, I began to laugh. It was the most absurd homerun ever hit. It was Hobbsian, as in Roy, as in mythical. Who does something like that? Before Albert Pujols, only fictional creations.
The Astros lost that game, 5-4, but wound up winning the next game and going to their first World Series in franchise history; but it’s the Pujols homerun we remember.
So poor Houston Astros.
The good news is that, per this year’s winter meeting, the team is being sold and is moving, in 2013, to the American League to balance the leagues. They’re moving to the A.L. West, home of the Rangers and Angels and A’s and my awful Mariners. So now the Astros only have to get past four teams to get to the post-season, rather than five as they had in the National League Central. And now they’ll be rid of having to play against Albert Pujols all the time.
Which, of course, is when Pujols signs with the Angels. When the Houston Astros finally arrive in the A.L. West in 2013, Albert will be here waiting for them.
What to make of the Pujols signing?
A part of me is bummed. I like the completeness of a guy staying with one club his entire career: Ripken, Puckett, Gwynn. Edgar Martinez and Stan Musial. Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams. Albert won’t be on that list.
A part of me is anticipating schadenfreude in a few years time. A 10-year contract for a 31-year-old? A-Rod was only 25 when he signed his 10-year deal with the Texas Rangers, and, in baseball terms, if not most terms, 25 to 35 beats 31 to 41 easy. I don’t want to underestimate Albert—remember: Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Bonds, Foxx, Pujols—but A-Rod is already falling apart, at 36, and that’s the mid-point of Albert’s new contract.
But mostly I’m excited. I’ve never seen Albert play in person. Now that he’s a member of the division-rival Angels, I’ll have nothing but opportunities. It’ll be at Safeco, where the air is heavy, and balls don’t fly out to left field well. But then it’s Albert. Air schmair.
Welcome, Albert. See you this summer.