Albert the Great

Pujols Technically speaking, Albert Pujols is having the worst season of his career. Though he leads the National League with 36 home runs, he also leads it in grounded in double plays. Worse, Pujols is only batting .300 with a .371 on-base percentage and a .921 OPS—all the worst totals of his career.

In fact, a quick glance at the numbers Pujols has produced this season proves that he soon will drop to the status of a mere mortal. Of all the years to lead the league with only 36 homers and a subpar .300 batting average, Pujols picked the worse one.

See, Pujols is playing out the last year of his eight-year contract signed before the 2004 season. His salary is $16 million for 2011 and speculation is that it could climb as much as twice that rate in the future. Whether the Cardinals can afford Pujols no matter what the price tag remains up in the air, so it’s understandable that the team is making some contingency plans.

Nevertheless, if the Cardinals lose Pujols there likely will be some fallout in St. Louis. That only makes sense considering Pujols not only is a pillar of the community in his hometown, but also is the best hitter of this generation.

Actually, when all is said and done, Pujols could go down as the greatest right-handed hitter to ever play. He could be the yin to Ted Williams’ yang, or perhaps more apt, the right-handed Stan Musial.

Fact is fact… Albert Pujols is the best hitter I have ever seen.

I only caught the tail end of Rod Carew’s career and I remember seeing him play a few times on NBC’s Saturday afternoon Game of the Week with Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola doing the call in the late ‘70s. Carew had that big old chaw in his right cheek and that crazy batting stance of his. When my friends and I would play ball in the courtyard behind our home in Washington, some one would always imitate Rod Carew or Lee May, who was the DH and star for the Orioles before Eddie Murray came into his own.

And yeah, I remember George Brett, especially during the 1980 season when one of the 12 channels we got back in those days would cut in to the regular programming to let everyone know that Brett’s latest hit pushed him over the .400 plateau.

Then there was Tony Gwynn, who was as pure a hitter as there was. Gwynn made it look like he was using a tennis racket at the plate. I remember a doubleheader at the Vet on July 22,1994 when Gwynn went 6-for-8 – four hits in the first game and two more in the second. Though for some reason it always seemed as if Gwynn got nine or 10 hits that day.

All of those guys are great hitters, but for some reason I think Pujols is the best.

But I needed an expert opinion to see if I was on the right path. Sure, in the first three games of the series at the Bank Pujols is 6 for 12 with two walks with a home run on Sunday night that was hit so far that it should be finishing its first orbit around the earth shortly. The numbers, occasionally, speak for themselves.

Still, there are just a handful of people on the planet who understand hitting a baseball as well as Charlie Manuel. Think about it – when Charlie was first coming up through the ranks in pro ball, none other than Ted Williams took a shine to the Phillies’ skipper. There was something about that big, lefty swing from that raw-boned kid from Buena Vista, Virginia that caught the eye of the greatest hitter who ever lived.

While coming up with the Twins, Hall-of-Famers Harmon Killebrew and Carew were his teammates. When he joined the Dodgers, Charlie couldn’t unseat Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Ron Cey or Jimmy Wynn for playing time. Because he couldn’t get the opportunities in the U.S., Charlie went to Japan where he and the legendary Sadaharu Oh were the top sluggers.

Back in the states as a coach, Charlie mentored some of the all-time greats. Hitters like Kirby Puckett, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and now, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley thrived under Charlie. Some of them are headed to the Hall of Fame. No doubts there.

So Chuck, how good is Pujols?

“He’s up there,” Manuel said. “He’s right up there with the best of them.”

Manuel says it’s difficult to compare Pujols to the all-time greats because his style is so unique. It’s impossible to compare him to Ted Williams or any other all-time great because there is no other standard. With his wide stance and the way he holds his hands back far when he loads up, the style stands out. It’s impossible to label Pujols’ method anything but his own.

“He has a style all of his own,” Manuel said. “You’re not going to see too many guys spread out like that and hold his hands the way he does. He’s unlike anyone.”

Charlie wasn’t ready to gush platitudes all over an opponent when there still are games to play in the series. Plus, Pujols is still a work in progress. Though he’s wrapping up his 11th season in the big leagues, Pujols is 31—two months younger than the Phillies’ Ryan Howard.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that Pujols can have even greater years of production in the short term. If he plays long enough, Pujols very well could be the first player to get 3,000 hits and 700 home runs. He needs 940 hits and 256 homers to get there.

So Chuck, how good is Pujols?

“You know what, with the way he stands in there he’s a lot like Joe DiMaggio,” Manuel said. “Only stronger. He’s like a stronger Joe DiMaggio.”

I like that. When Pujols first come up, DiMaggio was the comparison many in the press made simply based on the production. However, 11 years into his career it’s clear Pujols is going to places very few have seen.

The smart thing is to get out to the ballpark and see for yourself. Chances are Pujols will be the greatest hitter your eyes have seen, too.