ARLINGTON, Texas -- With the first swing he took in batting practice before Game 3 of the World Series, Albert Pujols lined a baseball 16 rows deep to the right of the Cardinals bullpen in left-center field at Rangers Ballpark.
"I went, '
At the batting cage, Pujols turned to hitting coach Mark McGwire and said, "My swing feels so good."
McGwire nodded knowingly. Time is the required ally of true greatness, for it takes not one moment but many of them layered upon one another year after year after year to elevate the very best to the top of their profession. But when the truly great are at the top of their game -- when the swing is dead solid perfect -- what you get is history.
Lincoln at Gettysburg. Hendrix at Woodstock. Pujols at Arlington. The performance of a lifetime.
"I knew then," McGwire said about Pujols feeling just right about his swing, "that it was only a matter of getting good pitches to hit."
The score of Game 3 will be lost to history, the unseemliness of a 16-7 pounding St. Louis gave Texas better off forgotten anyway. What remains forever is what happened when the best player of his generation found the very best of himself on the biggest of all stages. It was, quite simply, the greatest night by one player in the history of the 620 World Series games ever played.
It wasn't enough that Pujols joined Babe Ruth (1926 and 1928) and Reggie Jackson (1977) as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game. He also tied World Series records for runs batted in (six, by Bobby Richardson and Hideki Matsiui) and hits (five by Paul Molitor, with Pujols, incredibly, getting five hits off five different pitchers in a six-inning span). The hits -- two singles and three homers -- added up to 14 total bases, two more than the previous record shared by Ruth and Jackson. No one ever had a night this big.
"What it means," McGwire said, "is move over, Mr. October. There's a new Mr. October, and it's Albert Pujols."
This was the performance for which baseball has waited for a decade. The World Series, truth be told, has been negligent in giving us iconic nights, the kind of nights with the biggest kind of wonder, the wonder that belongs not just to history books but the oral history of the game. The nights to tell your grandchildren about.
Fisk waving the home run fair. Buckner coming up empty. Gibson hobbling to the plate and around the bases. Morris refusing to leave. Carter, Renteria, Gonzalez.
And then it just stopped. The 2004 Red Sox and 2005 White Sox were great stories -- allowing thousands to at last die happy -- but gave not a singular World Series moment. Series came and Series went, too quickly and too quietly. Not since Luis Gonzalez beat Mariano Rivera did the World Series pay off with a jackpot.
Then came Pujols, right there with the Babe and Reg-gie among October legends, but alone for an entire generation. Pujols wasn't even born when Jackson hit his three home runs.
Pujols did his best not to allow himself to admire what Jackson once called "the magnitude of me." He was gracious in praise of his teammates, humble in being asked to reflect on what he had just accomplished.
"To tell you the truth, I won't like, I don't concentrate on numbers," he said. "I just said it, this is not an individual game. This is a team effort. That's what I try to do every day -- go out there and help my ballclub to win however I can.
"Hopefully at the end of my career I can look back and say, 'Wow, what a game it was in Game 3 in 2011.' But as of right now, it's great to get this win and just move on pretty much and get ready to play tomorrow."
The night began quietly enough, with Pujols grounding out on a well struck ball, though it took a nifty stop by Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre, sliding to his left, to prevent what would have made for a six-hit night.
The barrage began in the fourth: a hard single to left off left-hander Matt Harrison. And then it was like the grand finale of a fireworks show, with crackling explosions breaking out one after another in rapid succession: a hard single to center off right-hander Scott Feldman in the fifth, a hellaciously hard three-run home run to left field off right-hander Alexi Ogando in the sixth, a two-run laser of a home run to left-center field off left-hander Mike Gonzalez in the seventh, and a parting shot, a solo homer to left off left-hander Darren Oliver in the ninth.
Total distance of the three home runs: 1,226 feet, or a small mountain worth of home runs in one night; it's the elevation of Little Mount Grace on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border.
"This is certainly something you can tell your grandkids about," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "What makes it even more special is he has carried the pressure of an entire city on his shoulders night in and night out for more than a decade. He deserves it."
If baseball had a Nicene Creed, it would begin with the belief that baseball is a humbling game. Failure, even for the very best, lurks around every corner. Those who survive to this level know deeply how punishingly hard the game can be. And so to see major league ballplayers in awe of one of their own, as the Cardinals were last night, as if somehow Pujols slipped through the physical laws of the game that apply to everyone else, was in itself a wonder. And of the five swings Pujols took for his hits, the one that produced the home run off Ogando was the "wow" moment for the rest of the ballplayers. Ogando threw a pitch up in the zone at 96 miles an hour. It actually was so high that it was too high to be a strike.
Somehow Pujols met the pitch with the barrel of his bat, meeting the back of the baseball perfectly, not the bottom of it, and with the perfect path to backspin the ball. It sailed 423 feet, a modest estimation for a sortie that was interrupted coldly by the facing of the upper deck in left field.
"The Ogando homer," teammate Skip Schumaker said, when asked to pick out his favorite Pujols masterpiece, referring to it by name like "Starry Night" in the Van Gogh oeuvre. "The guy was throwing a thousand miles an hour."
Said teammate Matt Holliday, "The ball is up in the zone at 96 miles an hour. And to not just get that ball, but to hit it with backspin and hit it that far is amazing. It's hard to hit a ball that far in BP. There's not a lot of guys, if anybody else, who can do that. He may be the only one."
By the time Pujols prepared to bat one last time, in the ninth, everybody knew they were watching history unfold. Already he had two homers, four hits and five RBI, a collection of hitting jewelry never before seen in World Series history.
The rookie outfielder Adron Chambers actually went up to Pujols in the dugout before he batted in the ninth and told him, "You might as well go up there and hit another one." Pujols didn't say anything. He just looked at him and gave a little laugh.
With two strikes, Oliver threw Pujols an 89-mile an hour fastball with a little cut to it. The pitch was off the plate and Pujols reached for it. He popped it up to the right side. First baseman Mike Napoli ran to the wall of the stands and reached as far into the stands as he could. The ball barely missed the tip of his glove, striking a fan three rows deep on the elbow. It was a nice little literary device to get Pujols one more swing.
Carpenter, watching on the clubhouse television, said out loud, "Man, if he tries to throw that little cut piece again and it's near the plate it's going to be gone."
Oliver tried that little cut piece again. It was over the plate. And Pujols smashed it 397 feet, the most modest of his homers in a collection of no-doubters.
"I ran up and hugged him," Chambers said. "I mean, I can't believe it. He hit another one like it was just that easy. Man, this is fun. To be here and be able to see it? Wow. I'm lucky."
Leaving the clubhouse, pitcher Adam Wainwright said, "I'm going back and playing MLB The Show and I'm going to be Albert Pujols."
There is a lot of noise around Pujols these days. His dereliction of media duties after his game-changing error in Game 2 made for a 36-hour story, thanks to the off day before Game 3, though in the scheme of things a rather unimportant one. His impending free agency, and the guesswork about where he will end up and the sum of his contract, is the stuff of gossip and conjecture better left to days when there is no baseball.
None of it meant a thing in Game 3. You didn't need to embellish any part of the narrative by introducing more "motivation" into the story.
What happened in Game 3 was the perfect synergy of talent, swing and stage. It was midnight -- the official end of the night -- with Pujols sticking around talking to the media until he finally had to catch the deep bus, when he pulled on a black suit, a light blue knit collarless shirt and a heavy silver necklace and at last made his way out the clubhouse door. A representative from the Hall of Fame stopped him. The tangible evidence of the night -- bat, spikes, gloves, shirt, anything; all of which had been authenticated by MLB officials -- is wanted in Cooperstown. Pujols agreed to talk today about what to give the Hall.
The totems of the night, whatever they may be, will be gazed upon with wonder by baseball fans for generations. But what Pujols gave the game was something bigger than any glass case could hold. He gave the memory not just of a lifetime but of many, a night that will be passed on from generation to generation. It is a night that truly has no end.