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.

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The next big thing

Dom_brown DENVER — Hang around baseball long enough and you will learn some lessons, most of them the hard way. It’s guaranteed if you’re smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open. It doesn’t matter how smart a guy thinks he is, how many good sources he has or how many games he has seen in person, there is always something.

So the best lesson I’ve learned about baseball that has been incorporated into my regular, civilian life is a hard one. There is very little wiggle room in this lesson and it is deliberate and foolproof if applied correctly.

Believe nothing. Unless you can confirm something or saw it occur in front of your own two eyes/ears, don’t believe it. In fact, even then it’s a pretty good idea to go out and get a secondary source. For instance, if you believe Albert Pujols is the best hitter you have ever seen, it’s a really good idea to get some back up. Try to find someone who has seen a lot of different hitters from all kinds of backgrounds and ask for their opinion.

Regarding Pujols, I asked Mike Schmidt and Charlie Manuel if he was, indeed, the greatest hitter I had ever seen. Schmidt went so far as to demonstrate Pujols’ batting stance right there in the clubhouse at Veterans Stadium where he described the genius of the Cardinals’ slugger.

“Watch what he does,” Schmidt said, squatting down low with his hands held high, choking up on an imaginary bat. “He always goes in there like he was two strikes on him.”

The thinking, according to Schmidt, is that Pujols is always weary, always thinking and always protective of his strike zone. Pujols wasn’t going to give in to a pitcher’s pitch or chase garbage. The theory is to kill a pitch over the plate and if a guy is good enough to throw one of those fancy breaking pitches on the edge of the plate, just tip your cap and walk quietly back to the dugout.

After that Schmidt went back to trashing Pat Burrell and his lack of hitting acumen.

Big Chuck didn’t demonstrate Pujols’ stance or make any over-analyzed hitting theories. Instead, Charlie made me think and dig between the lines. He does that a lot, actually. A big one with Charlie is, “Watch the game.” That means don’t believe the hype.

“He’s up there,” Charlie said. “He can be whatever you want him to be.”

What does this long-winded preamble have to do with uber-prospect Dom Brown? Well, everything actually. The truth is Brown’s long-awaited ascent to the Majors has sent lots of smart folks struggling to control their emotions. Long, rangy, smart, powerful and fast, Brown comes billed as the ultimate post-steroid era ballplayer. What do you need? Well, guess what? Brown has that trait in his repertoire. He was drafted in the 20th round out of high school as a left-handed pitcher because most teams thought he was headed for the University of Miami to play wide receiver. Since then he’s never thrown a pitch in a game and the only catches he makes are in right field.

What those teams didn’t know was that Brown was a baseball player who grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., which is perfect. Brown, a lefty in the field and at the plate, could be a stronger, faster version of Griffey. If Griffey was the ultimate player for the pre-steroid era, Brown is his successor.

Oh yes, he’s that good.

That’s the hype machine talking, of course. Griffey, ideally, should be a unanimous Hall-of-Fame pick five years from now. Of course there were a lot of players that should have been unanimous selections in the past—Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Tony Gwynn, etc.—spring to mind, but the BBWAA votes on these things… what are you gonna do?

The question no one has pondered is if the hype and the expectations are fair to Brown. There is a lot of pressure put on the 22-year-old kid to live up to a standard set by others. Yes, it’s the way it goes in this over-populated media landscape of ours, but that doesn’t make it right. Too often we are so quick to anoint everything the greatest hero or flop of all time. There’s never just good or mediocre anymore—it has to be extreme.

We saw this happen to Burrell when he was summoned from Scranton during the 2000 season and we could not understand why the Phillies took so long to call up Marlon Byrd in 2002 because we were told he was going to be the next great center fielder. Eventually Byrd became an All-Star, but it took three teams and six years after he left the Phillies to get there.

Then there were the untouchables, Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels. When the Phillies were hanging around the cusp of a playoff berth in 2003 and 2004 as the trade deadline loomed, Floyd and Hamels were the first players every team asked for only to be told to beat it or were given a counteroffer that included Ryan Howard.

It was the Pirates, not the Phillies, which backed out of the Oliver Perez-for-Ryan Howard deal at the last minute. Coincidentally, Floyd was included in the trade that sent Howard’s roadblock, Jim Thome, to Chicago in order to clear a path for Howard.

As Charlie would say, “Funny game.”

Here’s what I know… having seen Burrell, Byrd, Chase Utley, Floyd, Hamels, Howard and Brown play in the minor leagues, I’d like to think my eyes and ears haven’t mislead me. I thought Burrell would be better with at least one All-Star berth to his credit. Byrd was marketed wrong and probably needed a little more work on his makeup in order to be a star for the Phillies.

Utley was raw and no one really was sure if he’d ever be able to field an infield position. When it appeared that Scott Rolen wasn’t going to re-sign with the Phils, Utley was promoted from Single-A to Triple-A where he spent the season playing third base. Sure, he hit fairly well, but some are still amazed that Utley didn’t kill someone (or himself) with the way he played third base. But out of all the players listed, he has come the farthest as a player. No one expected him to be the best second baseman in the game. Burrell was supposed to have the career that Utley has put together and Utley was just supposed to be a really good hitter.

Who knew?

Floyd was a talent, but not as good as Hamels and certainly lacked that cockiness and swagger the lefty had even way back when he was pitching for the Reading Phillies.

Howard? Wow, was he smart as a minor leaguer. The aspect to Howard’s game that goes unnoticed is how quickly he can make adjustments and alterations at the plate. There’s a lot more than sheer brute force to what he does up there and the massive amount of strikeouts is a byproduct of something. What has been missed is the intelligence for the game Howard had even as a minor leaguer.

Brown_lopesHoward and Hamels were the best of the bunch until Brown came along. In his first game for Reading last summer, Brown hit a home run that will go down as one of those legendary moments they talk about years from now. The problem with this legend, however, is that there isn’t much room to embellish it. C’mon… Brown hit a ball about as far as a human being could smash a baseball at Reading’s ballpark without it sounding cartoonish or like something conjured in a video game.

Even better than the talent, intelligence and everything else, Brown was grounded. People kept spelling his name wrong but he was too polite to correct them. When he answered questions he used the word, “sir,” and he wasn’t being sarcastic. Know what? Pujols did the same thing a decade ago.

For now Brown is perfect. His first plate appearance ended with an RBI double crashed off the wall. Famed documentarian Ken Burns was even on hand to see it, which hardly seems like a coincidence.

But Brown is also the one player general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would not part with when he was cleaning out the farm system to get Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Brown is the chosen one even though Amaro went on Daily News Live last week and plainly stated that the kid wasn’t ready for the big show yet. Perhaps that was just Amaro trying to tamp down expectations in order to keep the hype from overwhelming us. A little breather, if you will.

Oh, but we know better. Amaro had no other way of dodging it. Money is always at the fore and guys like Brown (and Howard before him) have the natural flow of their development slowed in order to keep that arbitration and free agency clock from ticking. It stinks because there’s something truly sinister about those motivated by money over merit, but so far we’ve seen guys like Howard and Utley get theirs after toiling away in the minors for no good reason.

Maybe we are jumping the gun on Brown a little bit. Maybe he’ll be more Burrell and Byrd than Howard or Utley? Baseball has a way of separating the champs from the chumps really quickly. You can go to the bank on that.

But I know what my eyes have seen and I know that Brown made it through every level of pro ball with tons of scouts and management types watching his every move with the intent on prying him away from Philadelphia. There’s a reason why Halladay didn’t pitch for the Phillies in 2009 and it was because there was no way Amaro was giving up Brown to get the best righty pitcher in the majors.

Now both Brown and Halladay are teammates with lockers on the same side of the clubhouse. Chances are they’re going to remain so for a while, too. Needless to say, it’s going to be fun following Charlie’s advice…

“Watch the game.”

How can you not?

Helping out with the All-Stars


Chuck PITTSBURGH
— Guys like me have no particular insight or influence when it comes to Phils’ manager Charlie Manuel and his decision making. Come to think about it, no else really does, either. Charlie is his own man and isn’t afraid to put his ass on the line.

The buck stops with Charlie.

So when discussing the All-Star Game and Manuel’s job as manager for the National League for the second year in a row, there wasn’t much reading between the lines. Charlie said he had a deadline in which to submit his roster and like anyone with a busy life and a job that takes him to place like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, he was probably going to go right up until the last minute.

Actually, that makes sense because choosing an All-Star team isn’t exactly like writing a paper for an anthropology class. History doesn’t change, but baseball statistics are never static. Just when you think you have a handle on what the numbers show about a ballplayer he’ll ground out to end the fourth inning somewhere or some nerd will develop some new metric that revolutionizes everything.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to the numbers and more than anything Charlie will take a look at the more mainstream of them before submitting his selections.

And because we’re like that in the sports writing business, I took the time to come up with a starting nine for both leagues. No, Charlie didn’t ask me to do it and as stated earlier, it’s doubtful this exercise will have any influence. Truth be told, I didn’t even vote in the All-Star balloting.

But because there’s nothing else really going on and no World Cup action to tune in for, here’s my starting nine for the National League:

C — Miguel Olivo, Colorado
Actual pick — Yadier Molina, St. Louis
This was purely a statistical and offensive selection seeing as Olivo leads all National League catchers with 11 homers and 39 RBIs. Truth is I can’t really recall an instance when I saw Olivo play this season and his numbers could be inflated because he’s playing for the Rockies at Coors Field this season instead of for the Kansas City Royals. It’s a lot different when a guy gets to bat behind Jason Giambi instead of Alberto Collaspo.

Brian McCann of Atlanta just might be the best all-around catcher in the league and will be there with Molina and Olivo, though it would be interesting to see if Carlos Ruiz would have been in the mix had he been able to stay healthy.

1B — Albert Pujols, St. Louis
Actual pick: Pujols
I didn’t even bother looking up Pujols’s stats and I haven’t checked his line in a box score all season. Oh sure, Joey Votto from Cincinnati is having a monster first half and Ryan Howard has posted some decent numbers, too. But as long as Pujols is drawing breath on this planet, he’s in the All-Star Game.

In fact, Pujols could be 90 and retired for 20 years and I would write his name in for the All-Star Game. I wouldn’t even care if his UZR was subpar because Pujols is the best hitter we have ever seen.

2B — Martin Prado, Atlanta
Actual pick: Chase Utley, Philadelphia
Going by what I get to see on a regular basis, a guy like Prado deserves some investigation. Did you know that Prado comes from the same hometown (Marcay, Venezuela) as ex-Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu? Or that last season Prado hit three homers with 10 RBIs and a .432 batting average in 15 games against the Phillies?

How about this one… did you know that Prado leads the National League with a .336 batting average and finished first in the player’s balloting for the All-Star Game? It’s true. Prado beat Utley in the player’s vote, 472-276. That’s right, Prado beat Utley like a gong.

Because Utley is out with a torn up thumb until September, Prado will get the starting nod for Big Chuck’s National Leaguers.


Rolen 3B — Scott Rolen, Cincinnati

Actual pick: David Wright, New York
I have a confession to make and it makes me a little uncomfortable, but here it goes… Scott Rolen is my favorite player. Yes, Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Much better than even Rod Carew, George Brett or Tony Gwynn, but if my sons ever are interested in playing baseball seriously, I’ll get a DVD of Rolen, pop it into the machine and show it to my kids.

Then I'd probably say something like, "That, son, is how you play the game."

Because Rolen plays the game exactly the way it should be played and it's not really very subtle, either. For now though, the kids like the big fella. For intance, my oldest likes Ryan Howard because he had a life-sized poster in his room and the Phillies’ first baseman has some flair in the batters’ box with that exaggerated trigger with his bat pushed forward like a sword and, of course, he hits a lot of homers. Kids like big dudes who hit homers. When I was my son's age it was Greg Luzinski that every kid copied. Now it's The Big Piece.

Meanwhile my youngest doesn’t know what the hell a baseball is yet, but he'll learn because he's a lefty. All they both know about baseball is that it often keeps their daddy away from home and that’s not a good thing.

But back to Rolen…

There are no hidden meanings when Rolen plays third base or circles the bases. It’s all effort and power with some finesse sprinkled in around third base with some glove work that even forced Mike Schmidt to admit that Rolen was the best he’d ever seen. There also is no searching for nuance, which somehow makes his game appealing. Rolen really doesn't have any style when he plays and anyone with a sense of fashion will tell you, sometimes no style is style.

If there is something beneath the surface with Rolen it's that he has an iconoclastic quality, if you will. It was something that the folks in Philly didn't get at all, and maybe the only explanation is it's some sort of Indiana thing that is ingrained with dudes from that part of the world as if it’s part of their DNA. Letterman, John Cougar Mellencamp and Larry Bird all seem to have the same kind of qualities as Rolen, and they all come from the same place. 

Indiana.

For some reason certain folks from Indiana react to every slight or insult. When he was in playing in Philly, Rolen looked like he played baseball because he wanted revenge for something. It was something to see. Sure, guys with his sensibilities have traits that can be a bit alienating, but whatever.

Do you think everyone likes Letterman, Mellencamp or Bird? Do you think they care?

As far as the 2010 season goes Rolen seems to be on the path for the comeback player of the year. Healthy for the first time in about a half a decade, Rolen won the player’s balloting by 30 votes over David Wright. Plus, with his sixth All-Star appearance, Rolen has the third-most All-Star appearances on the squad behind Pujols and Roy Halladay.

He's old, but at least he has his panache back.

SS — Hanley Ramirez, Florida
Actual pick: Ramirez
There are two things that are peculiar about Ramirez. One is to wonder how he would be discussed if he played in Boston, Philadelphia or New York instead of Miami. If he spent five minutes playing for the Yankees or Mets, folks would probably be talking about Ramirez as if he were the second coming of Honus Wagner. Instead, we get to chalk down Jose Reyes as the most overrated New York player.

The second peculiarity is that most people only know Ramirez as the guy who lollygagged after a ball and then battled with his soon-to-be ex-manager. Of course that has a lot to do with Ramirez playing in Miami instead of an actual sports town, but hey, what are you going to do? Ramirez was voted to start in the All-Star Game for the third time so it appears as if they’ve heard of him somewhere.

OF—Andre Ethier, Los Angeles; Corey Hart, Milwaukee; Josh Willingham, Washington
Actual picks: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee; Ethier; Jason Heyward, Atlanta
My picks are all statistically based because if I was going by what I have seen, Hart would never be there. Has there ever been a player that always ends the season with great statistics, but whenever you get the chance to see him play, he stinks? That’s Corey Hart for me.

Corey_hart Then again I’m probably focusing on Hart because he won the final five Internet balloting two years ago and I was unfamiliar with his body of work aside from the humiliating 3-for-13 he posted in the 2008 NLDS against the Phillies.

Besides, who didn’t love that tune, “Sunglasses at Night” by Canadian pop-rocker Corey Hart back in 1983? Just thinking about it makes me want to break out a key-tar and rock out.

Either way, Corey Hart (but not Corey Hart) is having a solid season. I still haven't seen him play this year and I'm sure if I did he'd go 0-for-4 with a couple of K's and a throwing error, but whatever. His numbers look really good.

P — Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado
Actual pick: Jimenez (player vote)
Remember the first time you saw Jimenez pitch? It was probably in September of 2007 at the Bank or maybe even in October of that year in the NLDS. If you’re like me (and why wouldn’t you be?) you probably said aloud, “Holy bleep, what was that pitch?!”

You also probably thought, “I bet that guy is going to be a star if he can put it all together.”

Jimenez’s had what big leaguers like to call, “electric stuff.” He was raw back then, but threw 98 with breaking pitches that hissed and slithered like a snake. He was exciting in a way folks get excited when they discover a really good band that no one else has heard of, but now that everyone has caught up with the proper way of seeing things, you somehow feel justified and self-assured that you know baseball talent when you see it.

Hell, you might even be ready for a gig as a scout so you can go bird-doggin' around looking for the next best thing.

Anyway, Jimenez pitched the clinching Game 3 at Coors Field in the ’07 NLDS and held the Phillies to just three hits in an interesting duel with Jamie Moyer, which was his coming out party. People got a good, first look at him then though it took some time for him to get right here.

Two years after that rookie season, Jimenez won 27 games and showed flashes of brilliance though the rawness was most prevalent. This year, though, it appears as if he’s put it all together. At 14-1 with a 2.27 ERA, Jimenez already has a no-hitter to his credit and should get the starting nod for the National Leaguers.   

Interestingly, Halladay finished second in the player balloting behind Jimenez. However, since Manuel will be thinking more about his club than the National Leaguers, don’t expect Halladay to get into the game.

And that's it. There are you're National League All-Stars as defined by me. Get busy debating the merits of Omar Infante or Joey Votto. There's seven days to fight about it until everyone shows up in Anaheim for the big game.

Oh, so you want to talk about crazy trades…

Howard_pujols SARASOTA, Fla. — OK, here's one for you…

What if the Phillies traded both Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer to the Mets and got back Johan Santana? Huh? How's that one grab you?

Alright, that doesn't sound fair. Let's say the Phillies throw in some cash, too. Why not? Maybe then they could flip Santana to Seattle to get back Cliff Lee.

Then we'd be getting somewhere.

Look, as far as outlandish and ridiculous ideas go, the Kendrick, Moyer, cash, and Santana for Lee deal I just proposed is not any crazier than the one ESPN put out there when they floated the always mysterious "sources" rumor that had the Phillies dealing away Ryan Howard to St. Louis for the game's greatest player, Albert Pujols. Actually, my idea is a lot less crazy than the Howard-for-Pujols bit because at least it makes sense. No, neither deal is ever going to happen.

Never, never, never, never.

In fact, Phils' general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. called the very notion of it, "irresponsible," on the record to Insider, Jim Salisbury.

So there's that.

But what the hell… at least my idea is reasonable.

Let me explain:

You see, to a team like the Mets — one that stinks and is going nowhere, post-haste — a pitcher like Santana is a luxury. Better yet, it's like living in a trailer park with an Escalade parked out front. Those are some mixed up priorities and financial irresponsibility. If the Mets can remove Santana's salary quickly, it would be wise.

That doesn't mean they'll do it, though. Wise and baseball GMs are two terms that rarely appear in the same paragraph, let alone right next to each other.

Kendrick makes barely above the minimum and Moyer gets a nice salary so that's what the cash is for. Essentially, the Phillies would be doing the Mets a favor in all aspects. And since the Mariners appear to be spending some cash and rebuilding their roster, maybe they’ll go for the Santana for Lee deal, too.

See how easily that came together? Now someone take me to Bellevue. I want the ESPN suite/

Oh yes, there are many reasons why the Howard-Pujols idea is nuts, and most of them are quite obvious. Yes, Howard was born and raised in the St. Louis suburbs and is revered like a hometown hero. When the season ends Howard goes home to Missouri to hang with his friends and family and uses his home base for his off-season workouts before heading to Florida.

Here’s the thing about that… Pujols is from Missouri, too. Sure, Howard is a hometown hero, but Pujols is a hometown god. Not only is he the best player in the game right now, but he might be the greatest Cardinal ever, too. That’s saying something since Stan Musial (the man who should have gotten the same hero worship and publicity for being one of the greatest hitters the way Ted Williams has) is synonymous with the organization. Just nine years into his career, Pujols is poised to own every major hitting record if he doesn’t get bored with it all. Last spring after the Cardinals visited Clearwater for a Grapefruit League game, I asked hitting connoisseur Charlie Manuel his take on Pujols and he dropped a line on me like he was Yoda or something.

“He can be whatever you want him to be,” Charlie said. “Home runs, ribbies, slugging, average, he can do whatever you want.”

Yes, that was the manager’s way of saying Pujols can do it all.

Look, we know Pujols is really, really good. No needs Charlie Manuel’s explanation to see that. Just watch the guy, for Pete’s sakes. If there is one snake the is out of the can of peanut brittle it’s that maybe the idea of trading Howard (and Pujols, too) means the Phillies see a day when they won’t be able to afford him. Coincidentally, Howard and Pujols have contracts that expire after the 2011 season. By then, of course, both men could have another 100 home runs and 300 RBIs tacked onto their stat sheet.

Even scarier, both players will have their Hall-of-Fame credentials stamped and ready for induction despite the fact that they will just be coming into their athletic prime. Imagine that… born months apart in 1979 and 1980 (Pujols is two months younger), both sluggers are on an unprecedented path and they just now are beginning to enter their prime.

Wow.

But with that kind of talent comes a high price. Howard gets $19 million in salary this year and $20 million in 2011, while Pujols gets $16 million for the next two years. In fact, he’s not even the highest paid player on his team.

Sure, Pujols already has more money than he’ll ever be able to spend, but there is pride, ego and all of that stuff. Maybe at the end of his deal Pujols will want to cash in for all the years he was a relative bargain for the Cardinals. Shoot, if Howard is looking for a deal in the A-Rod range (an average salary of $27.5 million over 10 years), what’s Pujols worth?

Does the treasury even print that much money?

Now try this out—and understand we’re just riffing here… maybe the Phillies might believe that if they have to pay upwards of $30 million per season for one player, why not go all in and get the best guy out there. Hell, if you’re already spending $30 million, what’s another $5 million?

Could that be the logic in all of this?

Who knows? Chances are it was just a way to get a few extra clicks on the ol’ web site and to get people talking about baseball again. Certainly there is no harm in that, is there?

Still, the idea of Howard and Pujols both with expiring contracts looming and the potential salary both men could command is quite intriguing. What makes it even more interesting is the notion that if the Phillies can’t afford to keep a guy like Jayson Werth beyond this season, how in the world are they going to be able to afford Howard and/or Pujols?

Albert makes it easy

Albert-pujols If there is one thing we do well in the sports world, it’s our ability to complain. Oh, we whine, too. It doesn’t matter the motive or motivation—there are very few things sports folks do better than complain.

That’s especially the case amongst my brethren in the media. If something isn’t just so, get ready for an earful. Hey, I’m as guilty as the next guy even though when one breaks it down we are paid to travel around, see the country, watch ballgames and write about what we see.

What are we complaining about?

Nevertheless, there is always something. Lately I’ve had a bit of a beef with the voting results from the Baseball Writers Association of America. I thought J.A. Happ should have been the Rookie of the Year and Charlie Manuel probably should have finished a little higher in the balloting than sixth place.

Additionally, the two guys who did not include Chris Carpenter on their Cy Young Award ballot and replaced them with Javier Vazquez (what?) and Dan Haren (really?) should be forced to a Dr. Strangelove-type of torture in which their eyes are held open by metal prongs as the VORP of every player in the Majors passes on a projector.

The guy who gave a first-place vote to Miguel Cabrera for MVP can join them.

Still, the bottom line is I just don’t like the BBWAA. I’m just not into omnipotent secret societies with no oversight, and too much arrogance, but that’s me. Hey, I wouldn’t join the Elks, Moose Lodge, the Birch Society, KKK, Triple-A, Skull and Bones or Augusta National, either. Hey, I’m just not a joiner. But worse, I don’t like that the players’ union, MLB or the Hall of Fame hands them the responsibility of selecting the players who can make the most money.

Which is what they do.

I’m not for getting rid of the awards. Heck, I even like them even though there is something of an Academy Awards feel to them. How can they give a best actor award to guys who didn’t play the same part?

There is a way to do it properly, which is to have Commissioner Costas form a voting taskforce of the best baseball minds from all facets of the media. Just make sure they have a good attendance record at ball games during the summer. How about 110 games during the regular season? That’s two-thirds of the season… good number, right?

Or not. Whatever. It’s just baseball.

Baseball, however, does not seem to be what Albert Pujols is playing. Fact is, he’s playing a different game entirely and was justly bestowed his third MVP Award on Tuesday in an even more just unanimous vote.

In other words, this one was pretty difficult to mess up.

Credit Pujols for being so great. In fact, dig through the archives of this site and there are probably three or four posts about how Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen (hey, they’re my eyes) and probably the best right-handed hitter ever. I tried to get Charlie Manuel to admit as much last spring when the two of us just shot the breeze in his office in Clearwater with the CNBC ticking off the trading day on the TV above our heads. Charlie wasn’t biting but that’s because it probably wasn’t politically correct to call an active player the best ever. That’s especially the case if the guy is in the same league, too.

Baseball people are weird about hyperbole. It’s no fun.

But what Charlie said was, “He’s up there. He can be whatever you want him to be.”

That’s not a knock of any sort – far from it. After all, we were talking about a player that truly is an once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. In fact, Charlie said Pujols and Manny Ramirez were the two best right-handed hitters out there right now, which might be out of some sort of loyalty to his former pupil.

Come on… Pujols is clearly in a different league than Ramirez.

“Home runs, ribbies, slugging, average, he can do whatever you want,” the Charlie said. “He can be whatever you want him to be.”

That’s Charlie-speak meaning Pujols can do whatever it is the situation calls for.

That doesn’t begin to describe Pujols’ greatness though. In taking the MVP Award for the third time in five years (he probably should have four of them), there isn’t much Pujols hasn’t accomplished in nine seasons in the league. He has all the awards, gotten the big hits and, most importantly, won the World Series.

And get this, he’s nine years into his career and hasn’t even turned 30 yet.

Can we put him in the Hall of Fame already? Why deal with the formality of a vote? Who would be the guy who didn’t vote for Pujols?

Put simply, if the second nine seasons of Pujols’ career are anything like the first nine years, we’re looking at the first player in history to have more than 700 homers and 3,000 hits as well as the fourth guy to get 500 homers with more than 3,000 hits.

That’s unreasonable either. Actually, with nine straight seasons of 100-plus RBIs and only four seasons where he failed to hit at least 41 homers he’s well on his way. Considering Pujols is just now entering his prime, the numbers could pile up.

Or maybe not. As Barry Bonds described a few years back after a game in Philly during his chase for Babe Ruth’s home run mark, there might come a time when teams simply decide not to pitch to him any more.

“Albert’s going to have to deal with a lot of walks,” Bonds said. “He’s going to get walked a lot, unfortunately. He’s that good. Unfortunately, he plays in the National League, and when you’ve got pitchers coming up, and in a different league, it’s a little bit different. If he was in the American League, we might be saying something different, but in the National League, if he keeps going the way he’s going, he’s going to be walked a ton.”

Yeah, we might be getting to that point now. Pujols got 44 intentional walks last season, plus three in three games during the playoffs.

So was Pujols the MVP this year? Yeah, but why not just give him the award in perpetuity and tell him to give it back when he’s finished.

Baseball Heaven

image from fingerfood.typepad.com ST. LOUIS – Remember back when those quotes attributed to Scott Rolen surfaced? You remember, it was shortly after the third baseman was traded to the Cardinals from Philadelphia. It was something about his new team being located in “Baseball Heaven.”

You know, “I feel like I’ve died and gone to baseball heaven.”

Of course you remember. It just added a little more to that annoying self-image problem they have in Philadelphia.

Well, guess what? Maybe you want to come in a little closer so I can whisper this to you. Certainly I don’t want to get anyone worked up into a lather or hurt anyone’s delicate little psyche. But here it goes:

Rolen was right.

There, I said it.

St. Louis is baseball heaven. Take the way they feel about football in Texas, hockey in Canada and sprinkle in some surfing in Hawaii and then, maybe, you will understand how they feel about baseball and their Cardinals in St. Louis.

They’re nuts.

Oh, and it’s not just the kids, the 18-to-35 age demographic, or the grandfathers who saw Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang whip the Yankees at Sportsmen’s Park in the ’26 World Series, either. Nope. It’s everyone. They all dress in Cardinals red, they all cheer loudly for their hometown players and clap politely in appreciation for good play by an opponent.

Do they boo? Um, does the Pope date?

Actually, that’s not completely true. When Ted Lilly of the Cubs was introduced before Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, the fans sounded like Philadelphians when Rolen and J.D. Drew showed up on D-Battery night at The Vet. But before it was assumed an unruly St. Louis fan was going to reach for their flare gun and fire off a shot across the diamond, the booing stopped. Sure, it was loud, but it was good natured.

Darnit, it was friendly.

But c’mon… there is nothing more odious and ridiculous that comparing the fans of St. Louis to the fans of Philadelphia. It’s just a dumb exercise. Different folks, different strokes.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com However, the friendliest people on earth just might live in St. Louis. Make that obscene friendly. It’s like cartoonish friendliness, the kind that makes Will Rogers look like surly ol’ Dick Cheney. So mix that with the Budweiser Beer that flows deeper than the mighty Mississippi just spitting distance away from the ballpark and the surprisingly majestic Gateway Arch, and it’s no wonder everyone is so tickled and happy.

And it’s no wonder they love those Cardinals.

I saw the strangest thing yesterday while walking from the hotel (which just so happened to be located on the spot where President Harry S Truman was photographed in one of history’s greatest moments of taunting when he held up the Chicago newspaper that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman) to the ballpark for an evening of All-Star baseball, rooftop sniper sightings and Pedro-mania! What I saw was an old lady, with an uncanny resemblance to Estelle Getty, strolling around town with a Willie McGee t-shirt.

Seriously, Willie McGee! I mean, who didn’t love Willie McGee – he was a terrific ballplayer. But who would ever put Willie McGee’s visage on a t-shirt and then sell it to people. It was the weirdest thing ever.

Maybe not as weird as the veritable throng of people that lined the downtown streets like it was V-E Day and tossed back some Budweiser and some Mardi Gras beads as the All-Stars paraded from their digs at the Hyatt to Busch Stadium. The players weren’t doing anything other than riding in a car. Some waved. Others scowled. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ catcher, tossed baseball cards to the throng. Reports are his throws repeatedly fell short.

Oh, and get this: during the All-Star Game I crossed paths with the great Stan Musial. They called Stan, “The Man,” and for good reason. One look at his career statistics and it’s tough not to wonder why he was given the nickname of a mere mortal. Man? No, that guy could hit like 20 Men, but “Stan The Men,” doesn’t have the same ring.

Nevertheless, approaching his 90th birthday, Stan gets around in a wheelchair these days. He also doesn’t carry around a harmonica and inexplicably break into song the way he used to on those corny baseball reels. He also is depicted in his classic batting stance in 15-feet of bronze statue in front of the entrance of the new Busch Stadium located on a stretch of road named, Stan Musial Drive.

So yes, Stan Musial is kind of a big deal in these parts. People lose their minds when they see him up close even though he retired as a player at age 42 in 1963.

But get this, Stan gave me his autograph last night. It was a pre-emptive autographing. He just rolled over and handed me a postcard with his picture and signature on it. I didn’t ask – hadn’t even occurred to me that one should ask Stan Musial for his autograph – and I’m not sure it’s even something I need. However, Stan just assumed that people want his autograph so he travels with a pile of signed cards and hands them out like gum drops.

Unsolicited autographing? Really? Cool.

Maybe that just goes to show how crazy they are for baseball in St. Louis. After all, Stan Musial rolls with piles of autographs to drop onto the populace like confetti. In fact, he’s how goofy St. Louis is for baseball – old ladies who look like Estelle Getty wear Willie McGee shirts and young kids with iPhones in front of a PlayStation game at the massive baseball mall the constructed on the downtown streets, wear replica shirts with Musial’s No. 6 on the back.

St. Louis, thy name is Baseballtopia.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com But for every Willie McGee and Stan Musial shirt worn, there are 9,173 people wearing something celebrating Albert Pujols. Stan is The Man, Albert is The King or, El Hombre. The truth is Albert Pujols is so popular and beloved in St. Louis that he could strangle a man to death in cold blood in front of thousands of people beneath the Gateway Arch and the town would be cool with it.

They would probably say the guy had it coming and hope that by strangling a guy Pujols didn’t mess up his swing in any way.

Yep, they love baseball in St. Louis. When describing Philadelphia fans as “frontrunners” last year on the now-defunct “Best Damn Sports Show,” Jimmy Rollins cited St. Louis and the love the citizens have for the Cardinals as an example of how ballplayers like the fans to behave.

Guess what? Rollins isn’t the only one with that sentiment. It is Baseball Heaven, after all.

Here we go…

image from fingerfood.typepad.com We're getting ready to hit some dingers here at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, or The Loo, as they say. Oddly, there is a band warming up the crowd with some faux alt-rock and pyro. Lots and lots of PYRO!

The set up the stage with all banners representing all the corporate sponsors blocking the monitors and PA and set up the stage behind second base.

Is David Cook a band? If so, that just might be who was on FIRE!

Anyway, Prince Fielder will hit first and Berman is doing the intros. Luckily, we can't hear him so well up here in the press box. Which is fine.

But make no mistake, St. Louis homeboy Ryan Howard got the loudest ovation if you exclude Albert Pujols. The truth is if you own a company that makes Albert Pujols shirts or memorabilia in St. Louis, you are a very wealthy person.

You can't shake a dead skunk in The Loo without hitting a dude in a Albert Pujols shirt. Albert is The Man. Stan Musial needs a new nickname.

Albert the Great

We tend to get cynical in this business, especially when we see approximately one million people all wearing the same shirt in hero worship of one guy. It’s almost cult like the way they act around here about Albert Pujols.

And by “we,” I mean “me.”

Anyway, when the Cardinals traveled to Clearwater to play the Phillies during spring training, I inched in very close to watch Albert Pujols to take BP. Then I went back to the press box and wrote this:

image from fingerfood.typepad.com CLEARWATER, Fla. – Guys like me get jaded. Hang around the ballpark for as long as I have and some days and events tend to blend together. As a result, sometimes things that are really, really cool get lost in the shuffle.

Take last October for instance — there were so many significant moments that got lost in uber-poignant events that it’s difficult to remember them all. For instance, Shane Victorino’s little tête-à-tête with Hiroki Kuroda and the Dodgers in the NLCS in L.A. was pretty big. It definitely set some sort of tone for the rest of that series, just like Brett Myers’ AB vs. CC Sabathia in the NLDS and Pat Burrell’s two-homer game in the clincher in Milwaukee.

Phew! Yes, October was such a blur.

So this afternoon I took a little me time. A moment to enjoy something that doesn’t come around all that much in these parts.

Yep, I watched Albert Pujols take batting practice and, man, let me tell you… the dude smashed some whompers. The ball takes a different flight off Pujols’ bat compared to his counterparts’. It’s almost exactly like a plane taking off — it builds up speed on a straight line and then, whoosh, it takes off.

The aftermath is an assault on firm standing structures like tiki bars, scoreboards and people that leave dents and welts so it’s best to seek cover when Pujols takes BP.

Here’s the thing:

Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Yes, that’s what I said…

Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen.

Continue reading this story …

Where did those wavy lines come from?

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Just did a stroll around the press box and noticed the Home Run Derby on TV… what’s with those tail lines coming off the ball? Is that cool?

I’ll tell you what is not cool (and by that I don’t mean jerky, just geeky), Jayson Stark is tweeting his crazy facts and stats about the Home Run Derby. There’s this one for instance:

Albert will be the 12th straight hometown Derby participant not to win — unless everybody else gets shut out. Last to win: Sandberg in ’90

Or:

This is only the 2nd swingoff since they abandoned the old format, which broke ties based on season totals. The other: 2007, won by Pujols!

And:

Howard 6 HR in last 9 swings. But will it be enough?

I think I’m going to stop following him.

(I’m joking, Jayson, I’m joking… without Crasnick and Stark, ESPN.com would have no ball writing.)

Nevertheless, Ryan Howard climbed into first place in the Home Run Derby, but will have to hope for a slump from Prince Fielder and David Cruz. Certainly a Cruz-Prince final was not what the heads at ESPN wanted, but sometimes reality TV shows take a crazy turn.

Note: Howard dropped out of the top spot while writing this. Prince Fielder knocked him out of the finals.

So before the next walk around the box, here are some more facts:

The last time the All-Star Game was in St. Louis was 1966. The 42 years between All-Star Games is the longest span between hosting the Midsummer Classic. However, Kansas City seems poised to break it. The All-Star Game hasn’t been to KC since 1973.

Maybe they ought to have the All-Star Game in Las Vegas? Why not… the Winter Meetings were there last year and it was a huge hit. This December they’re having them in Indianapolis. Vegas to Indianapolis.

More facts:

The last time an NL team sent its entire outfield to the All-Star Game was in 1972 when Pittsburgh sent Willie Stargell, Al Oliver and Roberto Clemente. In the late 1970s, the Red Sox did it three years in a row.

President Barack Obama will throw the ceremonial first pitch at Tuesday’s game. The last President to do this was George H.W. Bush in 1992. President G.H.W. Bush did it in 1991, too.

Zzzzzzzzzz.

G.O.A.T.

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Guys like me get jaded. Hang around the ballpark for as long as I have and some days and events tend to blend together. As a result, sometimes things that are really, really cool get lost in the shuffle.

Take last October for instance — there were so many significant moments that got lost in uber-poignant events that it’s difficult to remember them all. For instance, Shane Victorino’s little tête-à-tête with Hiroki Kuroda and the Dodgers in the NLCS in L.A. was pretty big. It definitely set some sort of tone for the rest of that series, just like Brett Myers’ AB vs. CC Sabathia in the NLDS and Pat Burrell’s two-homer game in the clincher in Milwaukee.

Phew! Yes, October was such a blur.

So this afternoon I took a little me time. A moment to enjoy something that doesn’t come around all that much in these parts.

Yep, I watched Albert Pujols take batting practice and, man, let me tell you… the dude smashed some whompers. The ball takes a different flight off Pujols’ bat compared to his counterparts’. It’s almost exactly like a plane taking off — it builds up speed on a straight line and then, whoosh, it takes off.

The aftermath is an assault on firm standing structures like tiki bars, scoreboards and people that leave dents and welts so it’s best to seek cover when Pujols takes BP.

Here’s the thing:

Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Yes, that’s what I said…

Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen.

Continue reading this story …

More MVP banter

Full disclosure – if I had a vote for the 2006 MVP Award, my ballot would have looked like this:

1.) Albert Pujols, St. Louis
2.) Ryan Howard, Philadelphia
3.) Lance Berkman, Houston
4.) Alfonso Soriano, Washington
5.) Miguel Cabrera, Florida
6.) Jose Reyes, New York
7.) Jason Bay, Pittsburgh
8.) Aramis Ramirez, Chicago
9.) Chase Utley, Philadelphia
10.) Carlos Beltran, New York

Ryan Howard is certainly a worthy MVP winner and no one should really have any qualms about him winning the award. It’s just that I think Albert Pujols was a more valuable player. Statistically, Howard gets the nod, but Pujols carried his team into the playoffs and then on to the World Series without much help from Jim Edmonds or Scott Rolen.

Howard, on the other hand, had Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu for most of the season. In fact, a story in Baseball Prospectus surmised that Howard wasn’t even the MVP of his team.

That could be a little far-fetched, but the point is Pujols was the only man on the Cardinals down the stretch, while Howard hit just two homers after Sept. 9. Perhaps the argument for Pujols could be summed up by an email I received this week:

In game 157, Albert Pujols hit a three-run HR that allowed the Cardinals to make the playoffs and allowed La Russa to start Carpenter in Game 1 of the NLDS.

That sort of incredible moment is what wins players MVP Awards.

Another baseball writer crime.

I wouldn’t call Howard’s MVP a crime – far from it. But Pujols’ September should have clinched it for him.

That month? Try 41-for-110, 10 HR, 28 RBI, and 19 BB.

Meanwhile, don’t lump me in with the baseball writers or the arcane, anachronistic, outmoded and irrelevant Baseball Writers Association of America. They don’t let me vote, but the guy who put Pujols third on his ballot probably gets to vote for the Hall of Fame, too. Just like the guy who put Derek Jeter sixth on his MVP ballot.

Yeah, it’s all so scientific.

Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure Pujols is very pleased with how his season ended.

Game 5: Pitching and defense

It seems as if Placido Polanco is doing his imitation of Scott Rolen’s 2004 World Series. That’s kind of ironic, I guess, since the pair were traded for one another in 2002 from the Phillies and Cardinals.

Polanco isn’t swinging that bat poorly in this World Series, but he’s 0-for-17. This oh-fer comes after Polanco was the MVP of the ALCS. In 2004, Rolen went 0-for-15 in the World Series against the Red Sox after slugging the game-winning home run in Game 7 of the NLCS against Roger Clemens.

Polanco seemed to snap his skid in the seventh, but Albert Pujols may have made the play of the series to rob him. Far off the bag at first, Pujols dived to his right and snagged the ball in the web of his far-extended glove. But in order to nail the reasonably speedy Polanco, Pujols had to roll over to his rear, find pitcher Jeff Weaver streaking for first, and hit him with a hard throw from the seat of his pants just to nip Polanco by a step.

Meanwhile, La Russa started the seventh with a new right fielder and left fielder. So Taguchi shifted from left to right and Preston Wilson entered the game. It’s all about pitching and defense now, especially since the Cardinals have three outfielders who all have spent significant time as center fielders during their careers.

Defense continued to be a bane for the Tigers in the bottom of the seventh when David Eckstein reached first with an infield single when shortstop Carlos Guillen double-clutched on the throw to first. That was followed by a walk to the free-swinging Preston Wilson from reliever Fernando Rodney, who started the frame.

Perhaps his crooked hat, fashionably askew atop his head knocked him off kilter during the first two hitters of the seventh?

But Rodney got Pujols to pop out, and Edmonds to do the same. With two outs and two on Rolen dumped an RBI single to right just a few feet in front of Magglio Ordonez in right field.

Not only did that hit extend Rolen’s hitting streak to 10 games, but also it should have cinched the MVP Award for the former Phillie if the Cardinals can hold the lead.

The Cardinals ended the seventh with the 4-2 lead. They have six outs to go.

It’s Game 3!

Here are a few observations from Tuesday night’s Game 3 in St. Louis:

* If I’m not mistaken, commissioner Bud Selig took the “boys will be boys” approach to the controversy regarding Kenny Rogers and his dirty hand during Fox’s pre-game show. In an on-the-field interview with the always-entertaining Penn alum, Ken Rosenthal, Selig said that if Tony La Russa didn’t do anything about it, why should he?

Selig said that La Russa has been known to be combative.

What Selig and player’s union president Donald Fehr were with Rosenthal for was to announce the new labor agreement that will last through the 2011 season.

Selig called the new deal “historic.” You know, like the Treaty of Versailles.

* Kevin Kennedy, one of Fox’s pre-game analysts with a penchant for dismissing everything controversial in the game, was on top of his game on Tuesday night. This summer he debunked all steroid and performance-enhancing drug accusations and controversies with a hand waving, “He never tested positive!” As well as, “Put your name next to it! Stop using unnamed sources!”

OK, Mr. Haldeman.

Much to our surprise, Kennedy was just as dismissive of the Rogers controversy.

“It happens all the time,” Kennedy said. “It’s part of the game.”

Could you imagine what Kennedy might say if he were in Uganda with Idi Amin when people just started disappearing.

“What? It’s no big deal. It happens all the time. That’s just Idi being Idi.”

Yes, I see how silly it sounds comparing a brutal, homicidal dictator to a baseball pitcher with dirty hands and an apologist announcer. Better yet, it reminds me of one of my favorite Tug McGraw quotes.

After escaping from a tough, late-inning jam against the Big Red Machine’s Joe Morgan, George Foster, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench with his typical aplomb, Tug was asked by a reporter how he was able to stay so cool. “Well,” he said. “Ten million years from now, when the sun burns out and the Earth is just a frozen snowball hurtling through space, nobody’s going to care whether or not I got this guy out.”

My favorite Tug quote is when he was asked what he would do with the money he got for making it to the World Series with the Mets in 1973.

“Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.”

* I had Nate Robertson on my rotisserie team this season, Game 3 was the first time I saw him pitch. He’s a lefty… imagine that. He wears glasses, too. He’s also No. 29 like 1968 World Series hero Mickey Lolich and has been driving the same car for a really long time.

At various points of the season, I also had Jason Isringhausen, Anthony Reyes, Jason Marquis, Preston Wilson and David Eckstein of the Cardinals, as well as Pudge Rodriguez, Craig Monroe, Brandon Inge and Sean Casey of the Tigers.

I finished in ninth place of a 12-team league.

* Richard Ford’s new novel The Lay of the Land is out. This is the third of the Frank Bascombe series, which includes The Sportswriter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day. The reviews look good, which isn’t too surprising since Ford is a bit of a media darling. Nevertheless, I’m anxious to dive in.

* I had the chance to tune into the radio broadcast of the start of the game while running an errand. ESPN radio’s Jon Miller and Joe Morgan handle the call on radio, which is filled with much more insight than the TV version.

Yeah, I know a lot of people are not fans of Morgan’s work for ESPN, but there were a few nuggets from Morgan and Miller that the more superficial TV broadcast would miss.

This is no fault of TV, I suppose. After all, if someone is listening to the World Series on the radio they are seeking it out. A non-baseball fan isn’t going to drive around and listen to the game, though that same non-fan person could tune in on TV. You know, maybe the batteries on the remote died or something.

Anyway, Morgan and Miller pointed out that Preston Wilson could be the key for the Cardinals in Game 3. The reason? Wilson is in the No. 2 spot of the batting order, one place ahead of Albert Pujols. It would be Wilson’s job to ensure that the Tigers cannot pitch around the fearsome Pujols.

Yet because Wilson is hitting ahead of Pujols, the duo pointed out, he should get a lot more pitches to hit than if he were batting in front of, say, Jim Edmonds or Scott Rolen. Plus, they said, Tony La Russa likes for someone with some power to hit ahead of Pujols in the No. 2 spot. That’s why Wilson is so important, the announcers said.

This is interesting, though if La Russa likes power in the two-hole, why not try Edmonds or Rolen there. Certainly they both have much more power than Wilson and strike out a lot less, too.

* In the first inning after Robertson came up and in to Pujols, Morgan made a joke.

“Looks like that one slipped. Maybe he needs some pine tar?” Morgan said.

“He plays for the Tigers,” Miller said. “I think I know where he can get some.”

It made me laugh.

It’s the World Series!

So Scott Rolen finally got a hit in the World Series, and Albert Pujols finally smashed a home run in his fifth series game. More interestingly, after going 1-for-30 in their first World Series, Rolen and Jim Edmonds went 4-for-8 in Saturday night’s opener. These facts got me thinking…

What were the Tigers watching during their week off?

Who throws Scott Rolen a changeup when he can’t get around on a fastball? Why pitch to Pujols with first base open? Did the Tigers get a hold of the Lions’ scouting tapes?

Geez.

Nevertheless, still feeling the burn of Endy Chavez’s catch to rob him of a home run, Rolen felt a little goofy when describing his homer that snapped his World Series oh-fer.

“The ball was in the air and I was trying to figure out how was this one going to get screwed up,” Rolen told reporters. “What’s going to happen here? Hit a tree? I wasn’t sure who was going to catch that ball. I figured somebody would. I was just happy a fan did.”

Rolen also doubled in a 2-for-4 outing in which he scored twice and knocked in his first post-season RBI of 2006. After the well-publicized “feud” with manager Tony La Russa in the NLDS and NLCS, Rolen says he was happy to get the World Series and turn the page.

“It was a challenge. The NLCS was a challenge for me mentally,” Rolen said. “It was nice to turn a page on that and get a new series, a new environment and a new everything. Felt like tonight I had a little fight in me again.”

Pujols also homered, which came on a curious decision from manager Jim Leyland. Though the Tigers’ says his team is going to pitch to Pujols as if the count were 0-2, according to Fox’s Tim McCarver, Tigers’ rookie Justin Verlander grooved a fastball that Pujols smacked on a line over the right-field fence.

Leyland knew it was a mistake and told the announcers so during the inexplicable in-game interview segment.

“I have to take full responsibility,” Leyland said. “Verlander tried to get one outside but it tailed. Obviously we weren’t supposed to be pitching to him.”

Yeah, oops.

But therein lies the rub. Pujols is Pujols. He’s the reigning MVP and the game’s best hitter, so the Tigers know what they are going to get with him. But if Rolen and Edmonds start swinging the bats just a notch better than the combined 10-for-43 in the NLCS, everything changes. Suddenly, the Cardinals aren’t the 83-victory team that limped into the playoffs and surprised both the Padres and Mets.

If Rolen and Edmonds have rebounded as they showed in Game 1, buckle up.

On another note, do you think that guy with the handheld camera had a difficult time keeping up with Rolen during his home-run “trot.”

More World Series stuff
According to Baseball Prospectus’ list of the 10 biggest World Series mismatches – based on regular-season winning percentages – two of the series went to seven games, while three underdogs won.

The most notable underdog? The ’69 Mets over the Orioles.

The 2006 World Series is only the seventh most mismatched series, tied with the 1975 World Series, which lasted seven games and featured one of the most memorable games in baseball history.

Beginning in the 1987 World Series, only three teams have won Game 1 and lost the series.

It’s the playoffs!

Prior to the pivotal Game 5 of the NLCS, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz called out top MVP candidate, Albert Pujols, essentially writing, “Do something to save us, Albert!” in his earnest, polite Midwestern way. After all, the fans in St. Louis don’t stand for any of that negative malarkey. In fact, they are tamer than the Baltimore Orioles fans, who when a player fails to put down a sacrifice bunt, all shout in unison, “Awwww! Rats! OK, good try. Let’s hustle, Birds!”

That’s not what they say in Philadelphia. Or New York. Or Boston. Or Atlanta – because they aren’t there.

Anyway, Bernie (I can’t spell his last name without looking or copy and pasting and I’m drinking my pre-workout coffee and Red Bull right now so I’m typing with one, shaky hand) rightly wrote that if the 83-win Cardinals are going to beat the Mets and go to the World Series, then it’s all going to fall on Pujols’ broad shoulders. Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, after all, are weakened by surgeries, injuries and a long season. Scott Spiezio can’t continue his torrid pace – someone will figure him out sooner or later.

It’s up to Albert.

So when Pujols smacked that clutch homer off Tom Glavine – the guy who “had nothing” in Game 1 – it looks as if Pujols either read what Bernie wrote, knew how obvious Bernie’s words were since Rolen and Edmonds were being out-hit by Yadier Molina, or was surprised that the Mets and Glavine decided to pitch to him with those stiffs in the lineup behind him.

Nevertheless, the Cardinals are only one more victory at Shea Stadium from going to their second World Series in three season. According to the very astute and blog-reader Jayson Stark, this trip to the World Series would be the most improbable for the Cardinals.

Why? Try 83 victories, pal. That’s just two more than .500 and two fewer than the Phillies. Plus, to get to the Series the Cards would have beaten a 97-victory club in the NLCS. That’s pretty crazy, as Stark writes.

Cards in 6
Let’s do some limb climbing (always fun!) and predict a Cardinals victory in Game 6 tonight. Why? I think Chris Carpenter – the 2005 Cy Young Award winner and strong candidate for the award in 2006 (Brandon Webb will win) – is a little better than the Mets’ John Maine.

Nothing against Maine, who held hitters to a .212 batting average in 90 innings this season, but how much do the Mets wish they had Pedro at even 50 percent right now? Pedro, one of the best six-inning pitchers in baseball history, could do wonders coming out of the ‘pen for a couple of frames.

Meanwhile, Monday’s rainout and the flight back to Shea might be an advantage for the Cardinals. Really? Yeah, well ballplayers are creatures of habit and getting rid of a travel day for a getaway day – or night since Fox has been starting the games close to 8:30 p.m. – the Cardinals can pretend it’s just another routine trip to LaGuardia in mid-June or something.

Hey, play the mind game. Anything for a psychological advantage. After all, the Cards only won 83 games this season.

Good stuff
I’m not sure how many people were able to read the report by Mike Radano, Kevin Roberts and Rowan University since it’s only The Courier-Post, but anyone looking for something good to read about the local baseball club should check out the project.

Here it is:

  • The Rowan University report (PDF)
  • Kevin Roberts: Wins help mask PR bungling by Phillies
  • Mike Radano: Phillies flunk PR 101
  • Radano: The Phillies want problems to fade away
  • Radano: Time is a factor with Phillies fans
  • Radano: Phillies need a plan
  • Howard is the MVP

    Forget the numbers for a second. Often in baseball people get too hung up on the numbers and lose sight of the people and the game. After all, that’s what draws us to the game, right?

    How can anyone quantify that running catch Michael Bourn had in right field the other night in his big league debut? Well, yeah, I’m sure some egghead can whip up some type of formula to show that Bourn’s catch was the 463rd best by a right fielder in his Major League debut. But that’s not the point — the point is that Bourn ran like a freakin’ gazelle, extended his arm as high as it could go and softly cradled the ball into his black glove just before he nearly flattened himself into the outfield fence.

    That, folks, is baseball. Leave the numbers to the stat geeks — we’ll take the game.

    Digressing a bit, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Scott Rolen a few years ago. When presented with the notion that he could very well be the best fielding third baseman ever to play the game, Rolen shifted his feet uncomfortably for a few seconds before answering, “You know, that’s nice, but I really don’t think there is any way you can determine that. Every game and every player is different and a lot of people being compared never played during the same time.”

    He was using an old but popular argument about how it was difficult to compare players from different eras, etc. It’s a valid argument, of course, and it wasn’t just a matter of Rolen trying to be diplomatic, either. He just didn’t want to think about being better than anyone else. Something tells me he’s like that in a lot of facets of his life.

    Nevertheless, I told him that, yes, indeed, there are ways to determine who the best is. Smart people with real jobs and the ability to make numbers sing have come up with formulas and hyperbola showing who could do what and all that jazz.

    Basically, living, breathing people had been reduced to cold, hard numbers in order to prove something that most baseball people think is silly. The numbers may show something, but they don’t tell the story.

    Numbers don’t show how hard Randy Wolf and Rolen worked during the off season in order to play this year. Numbers don’t show how Curt Schilling was able to get all of those strikeouts by studying all of the hitters with John Vukovich. Numbers don’t show the size of Charlie Manuel’s spirit after he battled a heart attack and cancer to return to a Major League bench.

    You can have the numbers. Give me something I can touch.

    You want to know what else the numbers don’t show? How about how important Ryan Howard has been to the Phillies during their chase for the wild card. Oh sure, there are the home runs and the RBIs with the slugging, OBP, OPS and batting average that will put him in the horserace with Albert Pujols for the NL MVP Award. In that regard, yes, the numbers do tell a big portion of the story.

    But they can’t quantify the veteran things Howard has been doing since he has come to the big leagues to stay last summer.

    Veteran things?

    By that I mean making himself available to the media before and after every game no matter what happened previously. Win, lose, embarrassment, controversy, celebration or whatever the occasion, Howard has been dependable. In fact, last season there were times when Howard was the only player to speak for the team during a difficult period for the team. Now how is a rookie, who had not even played a complete Major League season, going to be the spokesman for the team? I guess that’s just who Ryan Howard is.

    Accountability is a lost art that transcends sports. When a “stand up” guy is identified, people have a way of gravitating toward that person. That’s kind of the way it has been for the Phillies this year.

    Certainly this group of Phillies has a lot of stand up guys. Howard, Wolf, Rowand, Conine, Gordon, Coste, Moyer, Madson, Victorino, Dellucci, Hamels… the list continues. But when one of the big stars is doing the dirty work — like handling the media and all of the other extenuating non-baseball things – it doesn’t go unnoticed. It may not seem like a big deal to the casual fan or the number crunchers, but if Ryan Howard is standing up in front of the media, it means other players don’t have to. Instead, those guys can get the treatment they need, or they can go home and rest so they can be fresh for the game the next day.

    In baseball, the little things matter just as much as the 56 homers, 138 RBIs and .311 batting average.

    The numbers add up
    Last season there was some debate whether Howard was going to win the rookie of the year award over Jeff Francoeur of Atlanta and Willy Taveras of Houston. Actually, let me rephrase that — there was some debate amongst people who didn’t know any better. For those of us who spoke with rookie of the year voters, we knew Howard was going to win the award easily and thought the idea of the debate was silly.

    But sometimes sports media is very silly.

    Nevertheless, it seems as if some of the MVP voters are giving Howard a really long look. And based on what’s happening in the final month of the season, Howard just might be sprinting for the finish.

    Whether or not he passes Pujols remains to be seen.

    One in a lifetime hitter

    Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Yes, that’s what I said. Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen.

    Sure, I 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 in the late ‘70s with 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 and 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. 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. Maybe it’s the combination of power and hitting artistry. Mix that with his ability to deliver in the clutch – like that homer in the ninth during the NLCS in Houston last October – and it’s hard to deny that Pujols is heading for something otherworldly.

    As big as the biggest ever… like Aaron or maybe even bigger.

    Now here’s the crazy part: Pujols is only 26. He was born the year Brett hit .390 and the Phillies won the World Series. Born in 1980 with five years already under his belt, Pujols has blasted 204 homers, with a .332 lifetime average while coming off a season where he had a career-low 117 RBIs.

    Just wait until he hits his prime.

    I remember being at Yankee Stadium during the 2003 season when Tony LaRussa told reporters that Pujols was the bets player he ever managed. Later that year I remember being in the Phillies clubhouse at the Vet and listening to Mike Schmidt describe Pujols’ approach to hitting in hushed tones. Schmidt couldn’t believe that a player so young had so much knowledge about hitting.

    “Look at how he spreads out,” Schmidt said, crouching into a copy of Pujols’ stance. “He treats every pitch like he already has two strikes.”

    After the opening three-game series at the Bank, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies’ pitchers facing a better hitter. With three homers in the first two games, including one that might land sometime this weekend, in a 5-for-10 series with six RBIs and a 2.000 OPS, the baseball fans in Philadelphia might not see a better hitter come through town.

    End of the line
    Oddly, the Phillies were only 21-17 during Jimmy Rollins’ 38-game hitting streak. For as much as a catalyst he was during the team’s stretch run late last season, it felt as if the team was as good as Rollins.

    Perhaps more telling was that the Phillies were 15-7 during Rollins’ streak when he scored a run and 30-10 in games in which Rollins scored a run after the All-Star Break in 2005.

    Maybe that means the Phillies are better when Rollins gets on base as opposed to when he gets a hit.