On April 22, 2014, Albert Pujols became the 26th Major League Baseball player to hit 500 career home runs. Though the club, itself, may be more exclusive than Augusta (minus the silly green jackets), its growth has nearly doubled since the rise of the “Steroid Era.” Instantaneously, the moment Pujols’ long ball left his bat, there was not only a public outcry, but living 500 Home Run Club members actually threw fits. The entire hubbub seemed to surround the fact that this “club” wasn’t nearly as exclusive since the introduction of steroids in baseball. Not only is this argument doing a great disservice to one of the game’s all-time great players (Pujols), but it also calls into question the selfishness and short-sightedness of some of the game’s all-time greats.
Roughly 18,000 men have played in the MLB since 1876, yet only 26 have hit 500 home runs. Since Eddie Murray joined the club on September 6, 1996, one could argue that the following 11 players played in a tainted era. This would be a stupid argument. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and company have all been connected to performance-enhancing drugs; this is a fact. Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and Albert Pujols have been distanced from this discussion, and rightfully so. The first 15 players to reach 500 home runs have all been elected to the Hall of Fame. Of the succeeding 11, it is likely that only four will make it (within the next 25 years). At 32 years old, Alex Rodriguez was the youngest to join the club, while at 41 and 291 days, Ted Williams was the oldest.
There has been much said about the “Steroid Era” or “Hitter’s Era,” but it all sounds like an excuse. Can these players from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, and Eddie Murray, actually say that there was no illegal drug use in their era? Can they say it with a straight face? There is an old saying “don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.” I’m certainly not accusing any of these greats of any wrongdoing, but if they are going to pull down their pants and piss on an era, they shouldn’t be allowed to conveniently forget their own.
In 1889, pitcher Pud Galvin became the first known baseball player accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. In Hank Aaron’s autobiography I Had a Hammer, Aaron admits to taking an amphetamine pill before a game in 1968. The list goes on; in fact, steroids did not become a banned substance in MLB until 1991, and testing did not begin until the 2003 season.
On April 23, 2014, Mike Schmidt went on the ESPN radio show Mike & Mike to give his opinion of the current “ease” of the 500 Home Run Club. Not only did he express his distaste of the recent deluge of players, but he even went so far as to say, “Well the ball has definitely gotten harder.” While that may be true, Schmidt is smearing his own legacy. No one likes a whiner, even if his name is Mike Schmidt. Schmidt isn’t the only former player to embarrass himself by campaigning against modern baseball. This is simply the modern-day version of walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways. No… no you didn’t walk uphill both ways. How quickly we become righteous.
This is not a defense of Albert Pujols. There is no need to defend a man has done nothing wrong. St. Louis fans may disagree, but Pujols has played the game right and earned the respect of the baseball community. There are only four men in the history of baseball with a .300 batting average or better, .400 on-base percentage or better, 500 home runs or more, and a .600 slugging percentage or better. Those four men are Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols. Heard of them? Albert Pujols averages just 1.69 strikeouts per home run. Is there anyone better of the 500 Home Run Club? Ted Williams is the only one. Pujols doesn’t need to be defended, especially not by short-sided arguments.
We live in a generation where athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster. This exists in every professional sport and has been this way since the beginning of time. People evolve, find new ways to do things and better ways to improve themselves. Baseball is a sport that revels in its past and struggles to change with the future, but this is a situation where it can stand up and do both. The 500 Home Run Club has not lost its relevance; it’s still the sexiest club in baseball. Pujols is unfairly and unintentionally getting slighted, but even if we point at Barry Bonds, are we really presuming that we’re that innocent?
Baseball is a beautiful and historic game that fills us with the warmth of 1000 summers. The game itself is pure, despite the politics and players. This is still the game that brings together fathers and sons, husbands and wives, Darryl Strawberry and cocaine. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I certainly couldn’t hit 500 home runs off a major league pitcher, even if I was pumped full of more PEDs than 100 Ryan Braun, but I can still look at the magnificence of the stat and the awe that 18,000 other people couldn’t do it. Instead of judging, shouldn’t we enjoy greatness when it comes to us? Take a moment to read it again. On April 22, 2014, Albert Pujols became the 26th Major League Baseball player to hit 500 career home runs.