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Pujols continuing to shape his legacy

With more than just numbers, first baseman among all-time greats
MLB.com @RichardJustice

Albert Pujols had played just three games above Class A when he reported to Spring Training in 2001. He was the 402nd player taken in the 1999 Draft, and declined to sign until the Cardinals bumped his bonus up to $60,000.

That said, Pujols was a legitimate prospect by his first spring. In just one professional season, the Cardinals saw enough to think his bat might play at any level. What they couldn't have envisioned is what we're now celebrating: One of the greatest players ever.

Albert Pujols had played just three games above Class A when he reported to Spring Training in 2001. He was the 402nd player taken in the 1999 Draft, and declined to sign until the Cardinals bumped his bonus up to $60,000.

That said, Pujols was a legitimate prospect by his first spring. In just one professional season, the Cardinals saw enough to think his bat might play at any level. What they couldn't have envisioned is what we're now celebrating: One of the greatest players ever.

That's what Pujols' 600th career home run -- a fourth-inning grand slam off Twins right-hander Ervin Santana for the Angels in Saturday night's 7-2 win over Minnesota -- represents. It allows us to take a moment to reflect on his greatness.

:: Albert Pujols 600-HR club coverage ::

That's the beauty of Pujols being 37 years old and having played in almost 2,500 regular-season games, and 77 more in the postseason. We can more fully understand his greatness, and the fact he belongs on a short list when discussing baseball's greatest all-time hitters.

Pujols is the ninth player to hit 600 home runs, and is 124 hits from becoming the fourth member of the 600-homer, 3,000-hit club. Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez and Willie Mays are the others.

Pujols hit 445 home runs for the Cardinals, and has 155 in six seasons with the Angels. In his first five seasons in Anaheim, he averaged 29 doubles and 29 home runs a year.

Only one other first baseman -- Lou Gehrig -- has a higher career Wins Above Replacement than Pujols, who is a 10-time All-Star, and a three-time National League Most Valuable Player.

Here's what Pujols would consider his more important legacy: In his 11 seasons in St. Louis, the Cardinals won more regular-season games than any other NL team. They also won the World Series twice, making Pujols the second player with 600 home runs and multiple championships.

The other? Babe Ruth.

Numbers -- even amazing numbers -- become noise after a while. When Pujols' teammates and managers speak of him, they never begin with a number.

Instead, they talk about his discipline, drive and work ethic. They talk about drenched workout clothes, and how Pujols pushed himself with thousands of swings in batting cages to keep his swing tuned.

They talk about that swing, too; how it was one of the most consistent and disciplined anyone had ever seen. They point out that Pujols almost never lunges at pitches and almost never looks off balance.

In an era when strikeouts are accepted as part of the game, Pujols prides himself on having never struck out 100 times in a season. Of all the remarkable things he has done, the consistent contact and strike-zone discipline -- 1,229 walks to just 1,091 strikeouts -- remain near the top of the list.

Video: MIN@LAA: Pujols discusses hitting his 600th career HR

Pujols' mechanics are locked in. He bends his knees and keeps his hands back. His head is steady. He generates power through the legs he has relentlessly strengthened, and with two of the quickest hands in history.

The Cardinals ticketed him for Triple-A in 2001. By the time the Cardinals' Major League staff had looked at Pujols that first spring, that swing needed no work. 

Through the years, the story has become that only an injury to Bobby Bonilla opened a roster spot for Pujols. Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said that's not true. He said that Pujols punched his own ticket with the seriousness of his approach and by consistently making hard contact.

Mark McGwire was entrenched as the Cardinals' starter at first base, but La Russa decided he could find playing time for Pujols in left field and third base.

Yes, there was some internal debate about whether this was the best thing for the 21-year-old's career. Would Pujols be overwhelmed? Would his career be damaged by tossing him into the deep end of the pool?

In the end, the Cards believed Pujols belonged, that he had nothing else to learn. He dispelled those doubts by hitting .370 in his first month, and then by making his first All-Star team. Looking back on it, he may be one of the players who convinced baseball people to cast away their previous developmental schedules.

When a player is as gifted, mature and smart as Pujols, it's OK to challenge him and to let him figure out things on his own. There was no adjustment period. In his first 10 seasons, Pujols averaged these stats: A .331 batting average, 43 doubles, 41 home runs, 123 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS.

Pujols' numbers have dropped off a bit as he has aged, but he's still one of the best players in the game by any measuring stick.

Video: Pujols lays powerful trail on his way to 600 homers

This celebration of 600 home runs is the kind that will make Pujols uncomfortable. One of the most important lessons he learned his first Spring Training from McGwire and La Russa was that the only thing that mattered was winning.

Everything else is just noise. When you watch Pujols, emotionless and determined, you're seeing La Russa's reflection. They were perfect for one another in that way.

We will celebrate anyway. We will point out that Pujols' ticket to Cooperstown was punched years ago, and let him know it has been a joy to watch him these last 17 seasons.

Someday, Pujols will appreciate all of this. He will understand that when we discuss the game's greatest first basemen, he's right there in that conversation.

Pujols' 600th home run is a reminder of how good he has been, and that he'll remembered for all the right things. As legacies go, it doesn't get better than that.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Los Angeles Angels, Albert Pujols