Albert Pujols and the Plight of Latino Baseball Players

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The Cardinals first baseman is the best slugger since Gehrig. Why isn't he a household name yet?

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Beck Diefenbach/Reuters


Where, I wonder, is Saturnino Orestes "Minnie" Minoso? I never see him at any Old Timers games—though he would be unlikely to play, wherever he is now living (Florida is my guess, since he is Cuban born), since he is now 85.

I thought of Minnie when Albert Pujols broke his right forearm in a freak on-the-field accident earlier this month. Pujols is regarded, and rightfully so, as the best player in baseball. You probably know this, but if you're only a casual fan or just a sports fans who glances at baseball highlights, let me give you the short form. Pujols is only 31 this year, he has hit 425 home run over 11 seasons. He has driven in fewer than 116 runs in only one season, and in that season he had 103. He led the league in batting in 2003 at .359, has never hit lower than .312 over a season, and has a career average of .329. In OPS—the combination of the two most vital statistics, on-base percentage and slugging average—he's led the National League three times.

If that weren't enough to separate him for most of the sluggers of his era—including Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and his current rival for the unofficial title of best slugger in baseball, Prince Fielder—he is much more than just a hitter. He's a superb first baseman and a surprisingly agile and intelligent baserunner who has been successful in better than 81 percent of his stolen base tries over the last three seasons. Since 2001, only Alex Rodriguez is in his class as an all-around player.

I don't have the time or space to make a detailed analysis here, but it should come as no surprise that most baseball analysts regard Albert Pujols as not merely the greatest first baseman in baseball over the last 70 years—that's since Lou Gehrig—but quite possibly of all time. He is a more complete player than Lou, and it will be interesting to compare their batting numbers when Pujols has played 2,164 games, as Gehrig did. (If Pujols is back from his injury in four to six weeks and plays 60 more games this year, he could pass Gehrig near the end of the 2014 season.) And at his current rate, Pujols could hit another 140 home runs by then to bring his total to 565, 72 more home runs than Gehrig in the same number of games.

So when you see Pujols play, you should immediately think Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial—guys like that. And yet, though he has won three Most Valuable Player awards and finished second four times—that's first or second seven times in ten previous seasons—one wonders exactly what Albert Pujols has to do to become a household name outside of St. Louis. He's made several magazine covers for Sports Illustrated and ESPN magazine, but he has been unable to tap the high-profile, non-sports magazine market—no GQ, Esquire, or Men's Journal covers. No New Yorker staff writer has deemed him worthy of a 5,000-word profile a la Manny Ramirez. This year he has gotten more press for his contract squabbles with the Cardinals than for anything he's ever done on the field.

If the figures bandied about in the press are correct, Pujols was not looking so much for a contract extension in line with what other leading sluggers (such as the Yankees Mark Teixeira and the Phillies' Ryan Howard) have received. Instead, he wanted a contract that would signify he is indeed the game's best player.

What would that mean in dollars? Well, in 2007, when Alex Rodriguez was 32, he signed a $275 million, 10-year extension. Pujols, who is 31 this year, turned down the Cardinals' offer of $200 million over eight years and set a February 15 deadline for making a deal. The deadline came and went, and there's no telling whether or not Pujols, who has played for St. Louis his entire career, will be a Cardinal next year.

When the baseball press wasn't fixating on Pujols's contract, they were all over his "slump," the worst of his major league career which left him with "just" 17 home runs and 45 RBIs over the first 73 games of this season. As Bob Costas put it a couple of weeks ago on the MLB Network, "Pujols's slump got more attention that any streak he's ever had." But not only was Pujols coming out of his slump before he was injured, he was on pace to finish with at least 36 home runs and around 100 RBIs. This would have been a "bad" season by no standards except Pujols's own.

You wouldn't think it would be so hard for the best player in the sport to be paid like it, especially at a time when he represents the new Latin dynasty in Major League Baseball. Alex Rodriguez has won his big contract battles over the years, but he has several advantages over other great Latin players. The first is having played the last eight seasons for the New York Yankees; the second is having been born and raised in the U.S. and never having had to overcome a language barrier. You might also say that A-Rod gets a publicity boost from hanging out with Madonna, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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