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COLUMN: Pujols' HOF career spanned 21 years, 700 home runs and saw baseball change

It's almost a foregone conclusion that Albert Pujols will have a plaque in Cooperstown, most likely with a St. Louis Cardinals hat. Hard to argue with 700 home runs, a feat only three other men (give or take a certain slugger who may or may not have used steroids) have done before in the history of Major League Baseball and The Machine is the first Latin-born player to do so.

But the thing that stands out the most to me about Pujols, and something I've been thinking about as he chased 700, is how he has transcended different generations of baseball. The game has changed so much since Pujols broke through in 2001.

Just two years after Pujols stepped up to the plate for Metropolitan Community College in a game against Three Rivers at Roger Pattillo Field, he made his MLB debut with the Cardinals on April 2, 2001, in Colorado. He was in the starting lineup with Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Mike Matheny. A few days later, Pujols would launch his first career home run against the eventual World Champion Diamondbacks in Arizona.

Around baseball at the time, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripkin Jr. were starting their final seasons in the bigs, Ichiro Suzuki was about the burst onto the scene in Seattle, the Yankees had just won their third straight World Series and the then Disney-owned Anaheim Angels would finish that season 41 games out of first place in the last year they wore those pinstriped, periwinkle uniforms.

Fast forward to 2014 when Pujols hit home run No. 500 in Washington. He was still wearing red, but this time in his third season with the Angels. Mike Trout was also in his third full season with the Halos and in the big leagues in general as he was hitting right in front of Pujols in the batting order. Also in the Angels lineup was Cardinals World Series hero David Freese batting seventh and batting ninth and pitching in that game was the late Tyler Skaggs.

In 2021, Pujols was over the 600 home run and 3,000 hit mark in his 20th MLB season, he was just about a full-time designated hitter with his speed and defensive ability not where it once was as age was becoming a factor. But he was the only pro player from the roster in Backyard Baseball 2003 still active and he would finish that season in Dodger blue. I'm sure that "Los Angeles (N.L.)" on his plaque in Cooperstown will look like a stain that just won't wash off to Cardinals and Angels fans alike. He has also faced and/or been teammates with other superstars such as Greg Maddox, Roger Clemens, Rickey Henderson, Adrian Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Shohei Ohtani, just to name a few.

By the 2021 offseason, Statcast had been around for six years, the rules for the Home Run Derby (which Pujols participated five times in) had changed, new rules for the game of baseball had been introduced and Pujols announced that he would return to St. Louis for his final season.

As of Friday, Pujols still sits at 700 home runs. With only six games left in the regular season, I don't think he'll be reaching Babe Ruth at 714. For the immediate future, Cardinals fans can only hope that Pujols can finish out his career with his third World Series ring, then possibly see his No. 5 retired at Busch Stadium and a few years later, travel to upstate New York to see him give his Hall of Fame induction speech.

For me personally, Pujols' retirement marks the end of baseball icons I watched in my childhood. I remember filling out my All-Star Game ballots in the late 2000s basically making a coin flip between Pujols, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder at first base for the National League (I can already hear your boos, Cards fans). When it was announced that Pujols would be going to the Angels in the 2011 offseason, I remember freaking out to my high school baseball coach at the time. As an Angels fan, I do have some memorable Pujols moments such as watching him hit home run No. 602 on June 17, 2017, against Kansas City in Anaheim and seeing him take soft toss swings before a spring training game earlier that year.

We are watching an icon of the sport take his final bow this October and Pujols will be regarded as one of the greats.

Robert Augsdorfer is a sports writer for the Daily American Republic. Contact him at raugsdorfer.dar@gmail.com.

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