In August of 1994, Major League baseball went on strike, prematurely ending the season, breaking the hearts of baseball supporters and denying fans the World Series. The far-reaching effects of the strike irreparably damaged the relationship between fans, owners and players. Fans’ immediate, angry and justified divorce from the nation’s oldest game plagued the minds of owners and players looking for ways to re-attract fans back to baseball. Offense, specifically the home run, they believed, was the answer.Seduced by the appeal of the home run (chicks dig the long ball), major league owners and players permitted sweeping changes to the game, which led to the yearly and daily compression of the strike zone to an impenetrable, hermetic minutia of its former self.
Buoyed by rapidly rising attendance numbers showing an increased interest in home runs, baseball persistently and periodically reduced the size of its baseball parks.
Most disturbingly, baseball and the players union refused to regulate the use of performance-enhancing substances, human growth hormones and steroids, all of which taint players’ accomplishments and destroy the authenticity of their numbers – numbers which produce a wealthy soil of statistics that foster debates that cultivate continued interest in the game.
As the suspicious cloud of steroid use begins to penetrate the game, eliminating the sanctity of the game’s precious numbers, implicating the game’s current crop of aging stars, one player, Albert Pujols, first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, emerges as the leader of the post-steroids era of baseball.
At 26, Pujols, currently playing in only his sixth major-league season, has a bright future – a future baseball needs to market. The unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year in 2001, Pujols is the first player ever to hit 30 home runs in each of his first five seasons, and is the first player since Hall of Famer Ted Williams to drive in 100 runs in each of his first five seasons.
After five seasons in the majors, Pujols has shown unparalleled early statistical consistency; his lifetime season averages include a .332 batting average, a .416 on base percentage, 128 runs, 46 doubles, 41 home runs and 127 RBI.
Baseball writers have taken notice. In 2005, his fifth season in the big leagues, National League baseball writers chose Pujols as their National League MVP, an award for which he has finished no lower than fourth in every year he’s played. Most impressively, his numbers have never risen significantly or decreased drastically in any year, which would suggest the use of steroids.
Pujols has not fallen prey to the statistical ailments that often infect baseball’s best power-hitters. Pujols hits far above average (career average: .332 which is 30th all time), winning the Silver Slugger Award at three positions in three years and demonstrating patience and discipline at the plate.
He consistently averaged more walks than strikeouts, which has led to a .416 career on-base-percentage, 23rd all-time in baseball history. In its promotion of the Cardinals’ first baseman, baseball must recognize Pujols has not faced serious injury, playing no fewer than 154 games each season, displaying the physical consistency needed to be the game’s biggest star.
With the smug Alex Rodriguez unintentionally dividing baseball fans and his teammates, Vladimir Guerrero’s game stuck in obscurity, Todd Helton’s production limited to the prodigious Coors Field, and Derek Jeter’s continued numerical deterioration making his great 1999 season a statistical mirage, Pujols, the game’s most consistent offensive player, becomes the game’s most marketable star.
Pujols, one of the many Dominican players in the majors, is numerically efficient, humble and bilingual.
The attraction to Pujols’ game is not limited to baseball sabermatricians who judge and evaluate players based on their field performance. His humbleness (he signed a 10-year, 100-million-dollar deal and barely a word was written) appeals to the common fan looking for a reason to trust and return to baseball. Furthermore, his heritage, native language and commitment to his country appeals to the rapidly growing number of Spanish-speaking baseball fans.
The strike in 1994, a year after baseball’s last great pennant race, squandered a once-in-a-lifetime year that featured baseball’s highest average attendance to date, the first great chase of Roger Maris’ home run record, Tony Gwynn’s challenging of Ted Williams’ .406 season, exciting, closely contested pennant races and the dominance of the Montreal Expos.
Pujols is a statistically sound, bilingual player who is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who will be squandered if he is not promoted correctly. Moreover, if it chooses not to promote Pujols, baseball will have neglected to publicize a player who could be the face of baseball for a generation.
In 1996, Pujols, then just 16 in his first summer in America, went to his high school office and said, “Where baseball?”
Pujols quickly found baseball.
And, pro baseball has found Pujols.
But, in order to dig itself out a controversy it created, baseball must promote Pujols.
Joel Petersen is a secondary education major from Lafayette, La.