ST. LOUIS -- Take a stroll through homer history with Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols, and the first thing to note is the stunning photographic memory the slugger possesses when it comes to recalling pitchers faced, locations of balls in and out of the strike zone, swings put on pitches and his particular feelings on the nights in question.
In something of a nod to his famous nickname, “The Machine,” Pujols appears to have the biggest home run moments of his legendary career burned into his brain like gigabytes of data stored on a thumb drive. Throw out a home run number, and within seconds Pujols can tell you the feel of his swing leading up to the big moment, the pitcher he was facing and the location of the pitch just before he sent it into orbit and over the fence.
Pujols, 42, is in the final MLB season of a career that will ultimately end up in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He's one of the greatest home run hitters the game has ever seen. He is on the doorstep of joining the 700-home run club -- an exclusive and often elusive plateau for even some of the game’s historical figures. Pujols, with 698 homers, sits behind only Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).
Along the way, his highly trained photographic memory has helped him prepare for at-bats and big moments by quickly recalling pitching patterns from the past. You don’t become one of just four players with at least 3,000 hits and 600 home runs (Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Aaron and Pujols) without using everything at your disposal to reach stratospheres with truly rarified air.
“Many of those [milestone home runs] are all special moments, so, of course, I am going to remember them. But I’m actually able to remember many of my at-bats and the pitchers I’ve faced because I watch so much video in 22 years,” Pujols said his prep work before games. “On a lot of my at-bats, I can still tell you the count, what I was thinking and where the pitch was. Stuff like that stays with me.
“I don’t like calling myself a 'machine,’ but it’s like my mind is registering it and remembering it for later,” the slugger continued. “Even if I don’t remember every detail, I can just see a couple of seconds of a clip and then all of a sudden, I can remember everything about the at-bat. With big moments, I remember every detail because I watch hours and hour and hours of video, and I have it all stored in my iPad. I still watch video from 2008, 2009 and 2006 -- some of the best years of my career -- to see what worked best for me. I think my memory of the at-bats is just like a pattern in my brain and it remembers everything about those moments.”
With Pujols closing in on 700 career home runs, he shares, in his own words, what he remembers about the milestone home runs that came before.
First home run: April 6, 2001, Cardinals at D-backs, two-run home run off Armando Reynoso
“That night, I was thinking I had just had a pretty bad [opening] series in Colorado and there was a pretty good chance I was going to go back to the Minor Leagues if I didn’t do something. But I was able to have a really strong series in Arizona and I was able to stick around for 22 years.
“I’ve always been a pretty good fastball hitter, especially if it’s up. Reynoso left that fastball up. I’ve always had a good, flat swing and I was able to put a good swing on that one. Back then, there wasn’t social media like it is now. I think once the game was over, I was watching 'SportsCenter' to see if it was on there. But for me, I remember that moment just being about the satisfaction of being able to hit a Major League home run. And again, that home run helped the team win, and that’s always my focus.”
100th home run: July 20, 2003, Cardinals at Dodgers, two-run home run off Odalis Perez
“It was against the Dodgers and Odalis Perez to straight center field. That was on Sunday Night Baseball, and I still remember how good that one felt. I got a good pitch to hit, and I always had good success against Odalis Perez. I got a pitch middle-away and drove it to straightaway center. Anytime you can hit those home runs that drive in runs and help the team take the lead, those are even more special. I never focus on trying to hit home runs; for me, it’s more about having good at-bats. When they come, they come because I’m having good at-bats.”
200th home run: Sept. 30, 2005, Reds at Cardinals, grand slam off Matt Belisle
“Bases loaded … grand slam … versus Cincinnati. The bat that I used right there belonged to [current ESPN MLB analyst] Eduardo Perez, who was my teammate at the time. Pretty much, I knew that was gone as soon as it left the bat. When you put a good swing on it, most of the time you know right away. I hit that one well.
“I hit grand slams for 200 and 600. It’s not really that much different. I mean, it’s a grand slam and those are always cool, but when you reach a milestone like that it’s going to be special regardless of what kind of home run it is.”
300th home run: July 4, 2008, Cubs at Cardinals, solo home run off Bob Howry
“I think it was a fastball middle-in, and I really had to stay inside of that pitch. I don’t even know how I kept that ball fair because of where that pitch was located. So that made it special. Also, I was so happy that I was able to do it at Busch and do it in front of our fans. That was a big one for me.”
400th home run: Aug. 26, 2010, Cardinals at Nationals, solo HR off Jordan Zimmermann
“I came into that series swinging a really good bat and I had had success before against Zimmermann. He left a good pitch up and away and I was able to drive it. For 400 home runs, that was one of the best swings of the night.
“That was just one of those moments in history when everybody knows what’s going on with me sitting at 399, and everybody expecting me to get to 400. As it turns out, I had a great moment that night."
500th home run: April 22, 2014, Angels at Nationals, two-run home run off Taylor Jordan
“I came into that night with 498 and then I hit 499 in my first at-bat and 500 came right after that. It was a lot of the same thing as the other big home runs -- I came in swinging the bat really well. That [500th home run] came during a month when I hit [nine]. I was swinging the bat so well in that stretch and I was healthy.
“I got two that day for 500, and then the next [series] we went to Yankee Stadium and I got 501 there. Leading up to it, everybody was talking about whether I was going to hit 500 at Yankee Stadium, but I did it in Washington instead.
“When I got to that point, I was like, ‘Wow, I got to 400 and then 500 here [in Washington, D.C]' and I started wondering if 600 might come in Washington, too. Every time I go there it’s a special memory that I think about and how special my teammates were in helping me celebrate that moment. After you pass 300, which is a lot of home runs, they’re all just even more special. At first, I was thinking, ‘Wow, 500 is a huge number,' but then 600 was really huge, too. I guess if I could get to 700, that would be even crazier.”
600th home run: June 3, 2017, Twins at Angels, grand slam off Ervin Santana
“Number 600 was on a fastball from Ervin Santana, and kind of like with my 3,000 hit I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it done and hit it that night. That was one of the times when I got to a milestone, and I wasn’t swinging the bat very well at all during that stretch. I wanted that [600th homer] so badly, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.
“When I saw the ball going up into the air, I knew that I had it because I put a really good swing on it. On that one, I did it in style -- grand slam, packed ballpark in Anaheim, and it was a really special and beautiful one for me.
“Of all the milestones, the most beautiful thing in most of them was the fact that we were able to come out and win that night. When you win the game, then you can really celebrate it the right way. Doing it in front of fans who cheer you, love you and support you and your family, that just makes it even more special.”