Pujols celebrates remarkable decade in Majors
Cards first baseman debuted in '01 with single against Rockies
ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols keeps looking forward. It's part of what's made him such a force for so long. So it wasn't until he was asked that the slugger realized Saturday marked the 10th anniversary of his Major League debut.
Upon reflection, though, even Pujols acknowledged that it's been a pretty remarkable 10 years.
Pujols' first Major League game came April 2, 2001, against the Rockies at Coors Field. Batting sixth and playing left field against Mike Hampton, he singled in three at-bats in an 8-0 loss.
"I can't believe it's been 10 years, bro," Pujols said Saturday. "It went quick. Colorado, man. [There was] snow before Opening Day, the day before, and we never thought we were going to get the game in. But it was beautiful, it turned out a beautiful day. Facing Mike Hampton, getting a base hit up the middle. [Second] at-bat missing a home run, I hit the ball deep to the warning track. It's just a great memory. Since then it's been awesome, a great ride. I'm enjoying every moment."
The Cardinals entered Spring Training that season with Pujols barely on the radar to make their Major League roster, but he forced the club's hand with a superb camp. An injury to Bobby Bonilla helped secure Pujols' spot on the Opening Day 25, but manager Tony La Russa insisted Saturday that the connection between Bonilla's injury and Pujols' situation has been overstated.
Still, La Russa admitted Saturday that while Pujols was extremely impressive that first spring, the manager had no way of knowing just what the Cardinals had on their hands.
"He certainly looked good," La Russa said, "but when the season starts, you can be a different looking player. He wasn't."
The same goes for Pujols, who wasn't sure he'd last 10 days in the big leagues, never mind 10 years.
"The reality was that I thought that two days after that, I was going to go down to the Minor Leagues because Bobby Bonilla was going to come back from the DL and they were going to activate him," Pujols recalled. "So I was the guy pretty much that had the option to go down to the Minor Leagues. I knew that was a possibility, but I didn't think about it. What I thought about was just to do everything I could to be up here, and if it was a week, to do everything it takes to help the ballclub in '01. That's what I did, and obviously I never looked back."
Even when the Cardinals broke camp in Florida, Pujols still wasn't sure he'd be on the Opening Day roster. The club made preseason exhibition trips to play the Athletics and Mariners, leaving for the West Coast without a set roster. The club may have decided before heading west, but if it had, Pujols wasn't notified.
"It was a great spring," he said. "I didn't know. They took me with them west. We went to Oakland and Seattle, and I didn't know then. I guess in Seattle, that's when they made that decision. [La Russa] probably already had that decision in his mind, but that's when they told me, in Seattle. We went from Oakland to Seattle, and then from there we went to Colorado, and that's when they let me know.
"When I found out, I found out from my family before I even found out from the ballclub because I guess it was all over the news. We were still hitting, and when I came in, I had a message that I had made the ballclub."
Ten years on, he still draws raves from opponents, teammates and just about everyone else.
Pujols' homer on Saturday, his first of the season, was No. 409 of his Major League career, already the 45th-highest total in the history of the Major Leagues. His 408 long balls were the most in the first 10 seasons of any Major League career, 27 more than second-place Alex Rodriguez. He amassed 1,230 RBI in those first 10 seasons, which is fifth among players in their first decade.
Pujols is the only player with at least 30 homers in each of his first 10 seasons. He also has a .300 or higher batting average and at least 100 RBIs in each of those campaigns. Only one other player, Al Simmons, has begun a career with as many consecutive 100-plus-RBI seasons (Simmons had 11). He leads active players in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and he ranks 30th, 12th, and fourth all-time, respectively, in those three categories.
"I can't reiterate it enough," said Padres outfielder Ryan Ludwick, a teammate of Pujols' from 2007-2010. "Albert is the best right-handed hitter I've seen. As a teammate, he's quiet but leads by example. He's always studying pitchers, putting in the time and looking for a way to get better. I think he's been a good example for young guys to follow. They see the kind of work ethic that he has."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi played against Pujols as a member of the Cubs in 2001 and '02, then with him in '03, Girardi's last year as a Major League player.
"His work ethic is a lot like a lot of other guys, but you watch him hit over a season and it's pretty amazing," Girardi said. "They don't always pitch to him, and he's going to take his walks when they know they're pitching around him. He's a very smart baseball player, too."
So although it wasn't a certainty that Pujols would be in the Majors in April 2001, since he arrived it's been clear that he belongs.
"Obviously it worked out all right, to say the least," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.