WHAT DO Everth Cabrera, Bryan LaHair and Gaby Sanchez have in common? Each of those middling hitters, none of whom are currently employed by a major league team, has been among the 116 who have participated in at least one of the last four All-Star Games. Meanwhile, Albert Pujols, the greatest offensive player of his generation, has not.
It used to be that the idea of a Midsummer Classic without Pujols was virtually unimaginable. The former Cardinals and current Angels slugger made the game nine times in his first 10 seasons, but his last appearance came in 2010, when he was 30. Pujols continued to put up what looked like All-Star-caliber statistics, but he was a victim of both heightened competition among first basemen and roster contortions by the game's managers. "I think over the four years I missed, my numbers were decent enough to be an All-Star," he says, "but I don't get to choose that."
Pujols seems to have suffered by comparison with his younger, singular self as much as with his contemporaries, although the loss of his traditional base of fan voting support after he left the Cardinals for a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels before the 2012 season undoubtedly contributed. He was a particularly notable snub in '11 when, despite missing time with a fractured left wrist, he entered the break with a .280 average, 18 homers and 50 RBIs, and in '14, when he was batting .279 with 20 and 64. Those numbers, however, looked modest next to the .324/23/68 line he averaged in his first 10 first halves.
The banality of Pujols's greatness seems to be hindering his All-Star candidacy again this season, at least among fans. According to the most recent update, which the league released on Monday, Pujols ranks a distant fifth in the voting for AL first basemen, behind the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, the Royals' Eric Hosmer, the Rangers' Prince Fielder and, somehow, the Blue Jays' Justin Smoak. Failing election by the fans in the voting, which closes at midnight on Thursday, Pujols could still make it to Cincinnati for the July 14 game through a player's ballot, as a manager's pick or through the fans' Final Vote, which will be announced July 12. However he gets there, this is the season in which his All-Star drought must end.
For the majority of his Angels tenure Pujols has been delivering two thirds of his former production with just one half of his body. First he sustained an injury to his right knee in 2012, which he had to have surgically cleaned up after that season and which remained painful through last fall. Then he tore the plantar fascia in his left foot, which ultimately ended his 2013 season after 99 games. "This game is hard already, even when you're 100%," he says. "Imagine how hard it is when you're injured."
This year, though, his lower body is healthy once more, and he has produced like the Pujols of old. In a 24-game stretch between May 28 and June 22 he batted .352 with 15 home runs, 30 RBIs and a 1.328 OPS. For the season, through Sunday, he was leading the AL with 23 home runs while batting .265 with 47 RBIs and an .887 OPS. His healed legs have allowed him to drive the ball again. His home-run-to-fly-ball rate of 17.8% is second best of his career high.
Pujols can't hide his desire to appear in the All-Star Game. "I miss those times," he says. "I miss being around young players. I miss being around so many superstars in one room."
"Did I ever think I was going to take four years off like that, that it wasn't going to happen?" he adds later. "I mean, I never thought that. But it's been four years. Hopefully I get the chance this year."
Years since Pujols last made an All-Star team.
All-Star appearances for Pujols, tied for third most among active players.
Home runs for Pujols, the most in the American League.
JASON O. WATSON/GETTY IMAGES