Albert Pujols doesn’t need 700 home runs. This just makes the chase even sweeter

My therapist thinks I should care less about external validation. I think it’s a nice enlightened aspiration, but it kind of hurts being human. (I mean, really, who It does not suit interested in external validation?) It seems especially unattainable for anyone working in public entertainment. But I guess in that regard, Albert Pujols is more successful than I am.

As soon as he returned to St. Louis Cardinals on a one-year deal in the spring; Pujols announced it would be a farewell tour: He planned to retire after the 2022 season. During a decade in Anaheim, the greatest player of a previous generation had slipped into relative obscurity, but a thrilling second-half stint with the Dodgers gave him a chance to come into his own terms – just as he had told ESPN he hoped I would.

The reunion went better than expected. Not only are the Cardinals likely to commit to the postseason, Pujols has thrived as a mentor and in a platoon role, posting his best offensive numbers since he last played in St. Louis. Louis. So good, in fact, that in his 22nd season Pujols finds himself chasing 700 home runs, with a real shot at getting there.

Right now, at 695 games and 138 games for the Cardinals, he’s close enough to being a member of that exclusive group — only Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds have surpassed that threshold — that people are starting to wonder: Really withdraw? And if it is really really close to 700?

“I’m still going to retire regardless of whether I end up at 693, 696, 700, whatever,” Pujols told USA TODAY Sports when he was 692. “No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement that this was when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Albert Pujols of St. Louis Cardinals tips his cap after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning of baseball against the Chicago Cubs Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

I thought of those comments again recently when Serena Williams said of her US Open performance after announcing her intention to retire from tennis, “I’m just Serena, you know. I’ve got nothing to prove. I’ve got absolutely nothing to lose .”

How special, and rare I imagine, to feel such satisfaction in the twilight of the kind of career that usually ends when your body betrays your abilities. It’s impossible to come out on top. Most athletes retire as a shell of their peak selves.

Pujols has accomplished more than enough to feel proud, to feel confident that his last game won’t be more than five years from his induction into the Hall of Fame. Can not not he cares about the accolades as a professional athlete. But maybe you can have enough of the individual ones – enough MVP Awards (3), Silver Sluggers (6), Gold Gloves (2), Bibles (5), Hank Aaron Awards (2), Roberto Clemente Awards (1), Rookie Awards of the Year (1), All-Star selections (11), batting titles (1), as well as a couple of World Series rings — that the pursuit of more no longer trumps the personal accounting of your own priorities.

Perhaps self-satisfaction is not inversely proportional to success.

What’s so great about Pujols’ pursuit of 700 is that he turned his final season into a fitting celebratory milestone for the career that made him famous before making him an awkward enduring testament to everything he was no longer. In his final weeks of major league baseball, his at-bats will be dating watch, his cumulative stature in the sport and a national conversation again.

And it’s the uncertainty that makes it so exciting. The combination of talent, age and time remaining in St. Louis’ season creates an exciting source of suspense and potential. It’s right on the line between possible and likely. We knew that would be the end of it before we knew he would hit .500 on the season and play productively enough to hit 21 more. Which meant that when he warmed up after the Home Run Derby and hit eight in August, there was already a ticking clock above all. That’s how all good chases should be, which is why we’re lumping Pujols in with Aaron Judge’s similarly historic pursuit.

Milestones, unlike records, are more likely to be met with enough time. Perhaps Pujols has played well enough to deserve the chance to return next season to put in the final miles needed to clear the nice lap number. But it wouldn’t have nearly the same magic if it was all secured, cheaper once it was no longer a true pursuit and more of a ritual expulsion. Pujols doesn’t need that. His career was incredible whether he finished with 700 home runs or somewhere close. It will never be better than watching him take some important swings so close to the end, and knowing that he is satisfied no matter what.

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