Apr 22, 2014, 11:55 PM EDT
Updated at 11:55 p.m.
Some around the baseball world recently had been questioning whether the significance of 500 home runs had diminished, especially in the wake of the steroid era.
Try telling Albert Pujols what he accomplished Tuesday night at Nationals Park wasn’t significant. The veteran slugger understands the magnitude of what he just did, becoming only the 26th player in baseball history to join the 500 club with a pair of blasts in the Angels’ 7-2 win over the Nationals.
“To have over 19,000 players who wear a big-league uniform, and to only have 26 players,” he said, “is pretty special.”
The crowd of 21,915 at Nationals Park certainly appreciated it, offering a standing ovation and then eliciting a curtain call from Pujols, who couldn’t remember ever being coaxed out of the dugout in a road game, or having teammates waiting for him at the plate following a mid-game home run.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I was pretty emotional running the bases. When I hit third, I pointed to the sky and I look at all these guys coming up. It was hard, but I just told them we had a game to win. We need to go out there and try to win. It’s just hard, because you don’t want to disrespect the other ballclub.”
The Nationals felt no disrespect, only admiration for a player universally lauded as perhaps the sport’s greatest right-handed hitter since World War II.
“Of course,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s a huge milestone in the grand scheme of baseball. You don’t want it to happen against you, for sure. But I admire the man, I admire his ability and the way he goes about playing the game, and I have for some time. I just wish he’d do it against someone else.”
Pujols entered the series sitting on 498 homers and was kept in the ballpark Monday night, but he wasted no time joining the record book on Tuesday. The 34-year-old first baseman crushed a first-inning homer off rookie Taylor Jordan down the left-field line to give his Angels an early 3-0 lead.
Jordan managed to strike Pujols out the following inning but couldn’t contain him in the top of the fifth. Pujols belted a waist-high sinker just to the right of the visiting bullpen at Nationals Park, a titanic blast that gave the Angels a 6-2 lead.
“I left a pitch up,” Jordan said. “First inning he hit a change-up. It wasn’t a bad pitch; I don’t think it was really up in the zone. The 500th home run, that pitch was supposed to be low and away, and I guess I tried too hard to get it there. We did three consecutive fastballs there, so I was really trying to get that ball where I wanted it and left it over the middle of the plate.”
Umpires began using a special MLB-authenticated baseball after Pujols hit his 499th homer, trying to ensure nobody would falsely claim to have caught the historic blast when it happened. Turns out the fan who corralled No. 500 near the picnic tables in the Red Porch area of the ballpark had no intention of profiting from his good fortune.
Staff Sergeant Tom Sherrill of the United States Air Force, a Southern California native and Angels fan, wound up with the ball in his possession and offered it back to Pujols, seeking nothing in return. Sherrill and his family did get to meet the three-time MVP after the game and pose for photos.
Though Pujols didn’t reach the milestone in his home park in Anaheim, he appreciated the fact home run No. 500 came in the same ballpark where he hit No. 400. On Aug. 26, 2010, the then-Cardinals first baseman took Jordan Zimmermann deep to right-center for that milestone homer.
“To be able to do it in the same park that you hit 400, and to say that you reached two milestones like that – 400 and 500 – it’s pretty special,” he said.
On this night, the accolades were universal, the result of the game taking a backseat to one mighty impressive individual feat.
“I can respect it, that’s for sure,” Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth said. “Albert’s had a great career. You never enjoy seeing other people hitting home runs off you, but that’s a special moment in the game. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
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