Albert Pujols’ contract negotiations with the St. Louis Cardinals have been fairly public this winter, making this the first time in a long time that Pujols has been mentioned in any conversation that doesn’t focus solely on his outstanding on-field performances. The fact that Pujols’ next contract will probably be his last big one reminds us that even the greatest players age and won’t be around forever. In the case of Pujols, his Hall of Fame status has probably already been cemented, but there is no guarantee that he will continue to perform at his current astronomical levels over the next few years. In fact, some of the players who went before Prince Albert may serve as cautionary tales when considering his ultimate place in the record books.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Belle is the most similar player to Pujols, based on overall career accomplishments, to this point. By the time he was 33, Belle had 381 home runs, more than 1700 hits, a .933 OPS, and a reputation as one of the most dangerous players in the game, both on and off the field. And then, well, that was all, as Albert took his ball and went home. No more public rages, no more home runs, no Hall of Fame.
At age 31, with two American League MVPs under his belt, JuanGon hit 35 homers, drove in 140 runs, and batted .325. In the ensuing 4 years, he hit 37 dingers total as his back deteriorated, and he was gone before he was 36.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
When Griffey engineered his trade to the Cincinnati Reds before the 2000 season, the stage was set for an epic homecoming that would culminate in bringing the all-time home run record to the Queen City within a decade or so. Instead, Griffey came to represent the underachieving Reds and was perceived as something of a slacker by Reds fans as injuries decimated his production. He finished up his career back in Seattle in 2010, clubbing an astounding, but somehow disappointing, 630 home runs.
These guys are just some of the recent examples of players who declined or flamed out rapidly once they hit their early thirties, demonstrating that nothing within the realm of human endeavors is assured from year to year or even day to day. Other shining (or dingy) examples include Don Mattingly, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, and Sandy Koufax, some of the game’s all-time greats. All indications are that Albert Pujols is very level-headed, with an enormous respect for the game and a keen appreciation of its history. He maintains excellent physical conditioning and works very hard at his craft. There is a very good likelihood that Pujols will age gracefully. Still, he is human, and there is the chance that he won’t reach all of the lofty milestones being projected for him. In any case, we should enjoy his exquisite talents while we can, because they won’t be on display forever.
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