J.R. and Henry: Baseball on the tube, and the mighty Pujols
There’s something about watching a baseball game on a still summer evening that takes you immediately back in time. Back before steroids and ESPN. Before free agency. When the owners made all the money and the players got all the fame. Even though all those things are upon us now, for better or worse, when you’re at the ball park, or even at times when you’re at home watching on TV, the game has a way of transporting you back to your childhood.
So it is when you’re watching Albert Pujols. As this column is being written, Pujols is fresh off his 17th home run this year, and his RBI total now stands at a ridiculous 41. Both marks lead the league. His latest feat came at the expense of the Colorado Rockies and Jose Mesa in the bottom of the 8th, when Pujols’ three-run home run turned a 2-1 Cardinal deficit into a 4-2 victory.
Thanks to satellite television, any game is available anywhere, which allows us to follow the Cardinals’ season from Little Rock as if we were sitting in the right-field stands at the new Busch Stadium. As a result, most of the last month has been spent flipping between the Cardinals’ games and the NBA playoffs.
Although the playoffs have been particularly good this year (watch Cleveland's Lebron James and the Phoenix Suns team, people, they’re worth it), one thing is always certain. No matter the score, no matter the situation, if Albert is batting, we’re watching.
And while the comparisons to the greatest to ever play may be premature, it isn’t too early to compare the feeling you have watching Pujols at bat to the feeling you had as a kid watching your favorite player. He hits for power and average. He takes walks, runs the bases with skill and abandon, and encourages his teammates. After last night’s home run, Pujols nearly caught Juan Encarnacion at home plate he was rounding the bases so quickly. But there’s really no need to show off when everyone is watching you anyway.
The only problem with Pujols’ MVP performance so far is that his greatness is masking many of the problems this Cardinal team has. Jason Isringhausen has been shakier than normal, and the starting pitching other than Chris Carpenter has been unreliable. Jason Marquis has started his normal late season swoon in May, losing his last four starts after opening 3-0. Since his duel in Chicago against Greg Maddox when both were unbeaten, he's gone back to being unable to locate his pitches in key situations. Colorado beat him 6-2 on Monday.
But even more worrisome than the pitching is the Cardinals' lack of offensive punch. Encarnacion, signed away from Florida in the off-season, continues to struggle (unless Mesa is on the mound), Jim Edmonds seems past his prime by a few years, and Scott Rolen’s various health problems limit his contribution. What else can you say about a lineup where So Taguchi, Aaron Miles, John Rodriguez and Hector Luna are regular starters?
Meanwhile, the Houston Astros and the Cincinnati Reds are surging. That’s the Astros without Roger Clemens and the Reds without Ken Griffey Jr. If and when those two players find their way back to their teams, the Cardinals could have difficulty making a serious run at the wild card.
In order to challenge for the division, and to have a serious chance at making a run at the World Series, a real offensive weapon has to be acquired and Rolen has to stay healthy. Rumors before the season were that the Florida Marlins’ fire sale might include Miguel Cabrera. If so, the Cardinals should do everything in their power to land him. At just 23, Cabrera has the chance to be a Pujols type player. Cabrera would be expensive, but a long-term deal for him now would look like a steal in three years.
But even if the Cardinals don’t make a move for another big bat, and end up falling short in the Central, it won’t be because Pujols let them down. And we won’t stop watching him, wondering all along if the player we’re watching will be the one our grandchildren seek to emulate.
J.R. and Henry contribute this sports column to the Little Rocking blog every Wednesday and Saturday.