Hate the Player, Not the Game
The most significant free agent signing in baseball this off-season has already occurred, except you wouldn’t know it based on the amount of coverage it received. We now know where Albert Pujols, undisputedly the most consistent and formidable hitter in the game, will be playing next year. Granted, he is a career Cardinal and it’s not a huge shock that they picked up his 2011 option, but it seems as though people tend to gloss over Pujols without much thought. He’s the best hitter in the baseball industry and has been for years, what’s there to look at? Perhaps Pujols himself put it best in his classic SportsCenter commercial, saying “I’m not a machine, I’m just Albert.”
For Pujols, of whom the sports-viewing public has never heard any credible rumors of on-field transgressions, this line comes off as an endearing testament to the reliability of his greatness. But if you remove the name and the reputation from the Cardinals’ slugger, bring the legend back down to the plane of man, it becomes less clear whether this endearing statement is actually disturbingly ironic.
What we are looking at is a player who started out as a shortstop prospect in the minor leagues, who showed flashes of power but never anything significant, hitting 19 home runs split between Single A and Double A play in 2000. As he matriculated to the Major Leagues in 2001, his power seemed to blossom overnight, as he was named the unanimous National League Rookie of the Year with a .329 average to go with 37 home runs and a NL rookie record 130 RBIs. Additionally, he had bulked up enough that he played third base as his regular position rather than shortstop for the first time at a professional level. Pujols continued to hit, continued to bulk up, and was moved to the more traditional power position of left field in 2002 and finally first base in 2003, a season in which he won his first NL batting title with a .359 average, 43 homers, and 124 RBIs.
Now forget that this is Albert Pujols we’re talking about and forget that this is an argument against the validity of the last of the last great hopes to transcend the Steroid Era. On top of making the leap from a solid hitting shortstop to the most feared batter in baseball almost overnight, Pujols had been plagued by right elbow injuries for most of his career, yet has only been forced to the disabled list twice since moving to the big leagues. Human growth hormone is primarily used to facilitate faster recovery from injury, allowing players to train longer to bulk up faster and seemingly naturally. Is this starting to seem suspicious yet?
Now let me reiterate, there is no real evidence regarding performance-enhancing drugs and Albert Pujols. All I did was simply list the arc of his early career and throw in a reference to the effects of HGH. But we can’t believe that about Albert, right? No, not Albert. Not the smiley guy who has done so much charity work for Down Syndrome and other causes. Not the future Hall of Famer who has been restoring the reputation of Major League Baseball one bomb at a time ever since the Mitchell Report. Not our final last great hope.
We don’t want to believe that Albert Pujols is juicing, just like we didn’t want to believe that Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire were juicing. I am not even saying that Pujols is doing anything wrong. I have nothing even resembling proof that he is, just the good old-fashioned hearsay of a cynical mind. I’m a diehard sports fan at heart; I don’t want to believe Albert Pujols is taking performance-enhancers. All I can do is hope he is clean. And that’s the problem.
We have moved past the point of belief in the world of sports. Utility player Jose Bautista went from hitting 13 homers last season to a league-leading 54 this season, the largest year-to-year increase in home runs in Major League history. He might as well just pin a red flag to his lapel. But Bautista has not really bulked up at all since last season. He seems to have finally gotten his swing down at age 29, just pulling shots to left rather than the towering fly outs of the Steroid Era that inexplicably seemed to keep carrying. Bautista seems to be the real thing. We can hope he is, but we cannot believe anything more than “seems to be.” Not anymore at least.
So what is there to trust? There is no good answer to this question, no happy little bow to wrap up all the intimations and the hearsay and the perpetual activity of the rumor mill. But there is one thing that I do believe, that I do trust wholeheartedly. I believe in sports.
Sports isn’t the problem, people are. Sports is the host, people are the parasites. Sports make children of us all, all giddy over the communal experience of the Miracle on Ice, Landon Donovan’s sensational goal to beat Algeria in the World Cup, the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson upset knockout, David Tyree’s Helmet of God. Sports give us these reasons to believe in the improbable, in the impossible.
It is people, in their beautifully flawed nature, in the pernicious righteousness of competitiveness, who bring doubt into the equation with drugs, fixed games, and shattered dreams. People are what keep me from adding the 2004 Red Sox to the above list, as they have since been tainted by revelations of steroid use by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz and swirling rumors about others. People remind us that the impossible is just that. Sports give us that miraculous October run; people take it away.
Feel free to blame people, but don’t dare blame sports. I will not argue about this. I do truly believe in the purity of sports themselves. You cannot convince me otherwise. And it really feels great to have such a strong belief in something. If only there wasn’t so much reason to doubt.