Thursday, April 2, 2009

Unshakable Faith

Pujols has been a low profile lightning rod internally here at JnM since long before we started the site.

A certain member of our staff who tends to be more numbers-aware than I has posited, rightly so, that Big Al's numbers are in many ways face-meltingly incredible. I'll let him make his own argument, which will come here at some point this season, but I've been less than impressed with Pujols as a player than he. It's not for lack of remarkable moments; as the city of Houston can probably attest to. It's been hard for me to pin down what exactly it is I don't like about Albert, and my argument was mostly a hodgepodge of suspicion at his hitting prowess and physique, the lack of physical grace in the Maysian sense, and Pujol's own churlish comments at Howard's MVP award a few seasons back.

[Quick aside there: For background's sake, if you're unfamiliar, Pujols carried a pretty average Cardinals team to the WS in 2006, while at the same time finished second in MVP voting to the Phillies' Ryan Howard. The numbers sort of wash out, Pujols with a better average and Howard with better power - RBI and HRs - but Howard put up some gaudy digits towards the end of the season and was seemingly the only player in Philadelphia trying to win a baseball game, so in the end he won the award. The awards are largely subjective, and I don't want to step on the toes of an upcoming post about what the MVP award should mean, but it didn't then and doesn't now seem like that big of a deal. Especially considering that Pujols won the thing in 2005. And the fact that he got a ring should probably abate his pain, but he went ahead and decided to give his ridiculous opinion about the voting, which went:

"I see it this way. Someone who doesn't take their team to the playoffs, doesn't deserve to win the MVP."

(apologies for the easy picture)

Which came across as severely selfish and self-aggrandizing. It has actually gotten worse with age; seeing as how now Howard won his ring last season and Pujols was awarded MVP for a non-playoff eligible Cardinals squad; one would assume Pujols would turn down the trophy for philosophical reasons - unless he was simply being in a bitch. In any case, it didn't serve his reputation well.]

Which bring me to this recent Sports Illustrated cover piece on El Hombre, which I strongly encourage you to read. While not revelatory or even particularly interesting, it has swung me in a small measure to the side of fandom, for probably the opposite reasons that Mr. Posnanski wishs.

It's pat with the standard writery set pieces that in large part we hate about MSM sports coverage: kids with disabilities, straw arguments, very little actual baseball discussion, and so on. But what it reveals about Mr. Pujols is a consistent excellence that has had little conversation to this point (his thick/strong but not lean body style and almost flawless eye, combined with a swing that seems too perfect all land on the Bonds side of supplement-suspicion, as was his lack of fanfare coming up through the system [in the way Ellsbury or Sizemore were lauded], this piece explained how he's been a baseball prodigy since he started playing) and a religious devotion to baseball that has sapped him of all personality.

But maybe that's where his appeal lies. Duncan is, after all, one of my favorite basketball players, whose style exists as a negative (detailed here much more eloquently). While not a perfect parallel, I think Pujols might be the baseball version of Timmy D. It's exemplified best in his position; usually first base is where the lumbering power hitters sit and hope to not be made fools of; Fielder and Vaughn spring to mind, but Pujols has made the non-remarkable and workman position a bastion of his proficiency and is quietly the best fielder on his team. His swing, too, is the most praised part of his game and almost without peer, but it's less memorable and flashy than we expect, somehow. See: Manny.

The sort of non-sport specific things we normally glean from our premiere athletes - the various stylistic changes Jordan inspired, or the backwards hat and easy grace of Griffey; hell, even the simple adornments of Ripken - are lacking from Pujols. Here too, he is in Duncan's good company: wearing an absurdly ugly goatee and that huge necklace, Pujols further manages to mess up his baseball uniform in a way Duncan could never attempt, tucking his pants into his cleats. Pujols, to his credit, makes this endearing; and really it all means is that outside of his stance we can't see any kids trying to emulate his game.

But this isn't a bad thing. Pujols, playing in and to St. Louis, will probably never be the hottest baseball player on the planet.

All evidence points to him being the best.

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