Baseball guru and founding sabermetrician Bill James wrote recently in Sports Illustrated that Pujols may have gotten off to the most perfect start to a baseball career ever according to the following three criteria:
“1. It comprises brilliant full seasons from Day One in the big leagues. This is extremely rare, as most great players will play a partial season or two before their careers really get going. Frank Thomas, for example, was instantly great and is an excellent early-career comparison for Pujols, but he was called up midseason and played only 60 games his first year. Lou Gehrig played 23 games over two seasons before getting called up for good. Ty Cobb played parts of two seasons before becoming a regular in 1907.
2. It is not interrupted (by a war, a strike, injuries) or diminished by a factor out of the player’s control, such as a lousy home park. This is probably an unfair requirement, but, hey, we are talking about a perfect career. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had tremendous careers, but theirs were interrupted by World War II, and Willie Mays’s career was briefly put on hold by the Korean War. Joe Morgan’s greatness was undercut by some rather ordinary numbers that were a consequence of playing seven seasons in Houston’s Astrodome, one of the worst hitting parks in baseball history.
3. It should be made up of Hall of Fame–caliber seasons every single year.
Those three qualifications, of course, eliminate virtually every player in baseball history from having a career that’s considered perfect. One player who is not eliminated, though, is Albert Pujols, who made the Cardinals out of spring training in 2001, had one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history—.329 average, 37 homers, 130 RBIs, 112 runs scored—and has been killing the ball ever since, right up through this season, in which he is making his most serious run at a Triple Crown. Through Sunday he had 31 homers (seven ahead of his closest pursuer), 82 RBIs (six ahead) and was hitting .336 (second in the league, 10 points off the pace).”
Pujols has continued his torrid hitting and pursuit of the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 after an eventful All-Star weekend in which he caught President Obama’s ceremonial first pitch, and did not, contrary to expectations, win the Home Run Derby.
The book ostensibly covers a three game set between traditional division rivals Chicago Cubs, then managed by Dusty Baker, and the Cardinals, who were and are skippered by Tony LaRussa. The author of Friday Night Lights and an epic meltdown about the Internet, Bissinger focuses largely on the inner workings of the managers as they make their personnel decisions.
In the process, though, of explaining their thoughts, he also tells about the individual players.
Pujols is one of them. Bissinger chronicles his humility, his religious faith and his relentless quest for improvement.
Pujols’ individual exploits are likely to be the subject of many more profiles and books, even as writers already acknowledge that they are running out of ways to describe his metronomic excellence.
For those who want an earlier take, Bissinger’s book is worth the time.