Albert Pujols was once an obscure 13th-round draft pick out of Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, who almost didn't sign a professional contract. Now he's the 32nd member of the 3,000-hit club and just the fourth player in that group to get there while also slugging 600 home runs.
After lining out in his first at-bat and walking in his second plate appearance Friday night at Seattle's Safeco Field, Pujols reached the milestone when he singled on a soft liner to right field with two outs in the fifth inning off Mariners starter Mike Leake.
Pujols went on to single in the ninth inning, passing Roberto Clemente for No. 31 on the MLB's career list with his 3,001st hit. He finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs in the Angels' 5-0 win.
"I was really excited, but at the same time you still have a game you need to play, and you still need to focus to win that game,'' Pujols said. "That's what I told those guys. Let's go win that game so it can taste a little better.''
Angels teammate Mike Trout saluted Pujols in a tweet late Friday.
Pujols joined Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez in the 3,000/600 club, further solidifying his reputation as one of the best hitters of all time. He's the fourth player in four seasons to reach 3,000 hits, after Rodriguez in 2015, Ichiro Suzuki in 2016 and Adrian Beltre last season.
Pujols and Beltre are the only Dominican-born players to reach the milestone.
"It was fun that it turned into a little bit of a battle before he got a hit. Congratulations to him,'' Leake said. "He's a competitor at every second that he's on the field. He's been a joy to watch and a joy to compete against, for sure.''
Pujols' trek to 3,000 hits has slowed in recent seasons, but his first 10 seasons with the Cardinals were one of the greatest decades ever for a batter, as he hit .331 while averaging 41 home runs, 123 RBIs and 190 hits. He won three MVPs and finished second in the voting four other times.
"I'm aware of the legacy and the people that I tie and am on the same page right now,'' Pujols said. "But at the end of the day, it's about winning a championship. Nothing would be more special than in September and October and playing in the playoffs and bringing a championship back to the city of Anaheim.''
That path to stardom almost didn't happen, at least not with St. Louis. When the Cardinals drafted the stocky shortstop as the 402nd pick in 1999, they initially offered a signing bonus of $10,000. Pujols declined to sign and played that summer for the Hays Larks of the amateur Jayhawk League. The Cardinals finally relented and signed Pujols for a bonus close to $60,000.
He needed just one season and 127 games in the minors to reach the majors, breaking camp with the Cardinals in 2001 and starting in left field on Opening Day. He got his first hit that day off Mike Hampton of the Colorado Rockies and recently reminisced about the game with ESPN's Jerry Crasnick.
"I remember my [second] at-bat. I almost took him deep," Pujols said. "I almost hit a home run. I hit a long fly ball, and they caught it right at the wall. Then I hit a pitch middle-away, and I hit a ground ball, and Neifi Perez almost caught it, but it went through.
"Obviously, it's fun, but I was more worried about trying to stay up in the big leagues. Three days before, they told me I was going to make the ballclub. Then three days later, on Opening Day, I got my first hit."
Pujols would hit his first home run three games later, off Armando Reynoso of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he was on his way. He hit .329 in his first season, with 37 home runs, winning Rookie of the Year honors and finishing fourth in MVP voting.
One of the most impressive aspects of Pujols' career is that he has never struck out 100 times in a season. That's not unusual for members of the 3,000-hit club, but he's avoided that while hitting for power and playing in the highest-strikeout era in major league history.
"Some guys in this era think the strikeout is a little overrated," Pujols told ESPN. "They're like, 'I don't care about it.' I do. It's something in this game I really, really don't like."
After 11 seasons and two World Series titles with the Cardinals, Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million free-agent deal with the Angels, a contract that has been met with much criticism as his production has declined. Pujols' average dropped to .299 in his final season with the Cardinals in 2011, but he has hit just .261 with the Angels and has never hit .300.
With St. Louis, Pujols' lowest slugging percentage was .541 (also in his final season there); he's reached .500 only in his first season with the Angels.
Despite teaming with Mike Trout since 2012, the Angels have made just one playoff appearance since Pujols joined the team. He's played through foot injuries that have affected his performance, and he still has four years and $114 million left on his deal, including this season, but the contract is widely viewed as an albatross given his sub-.300 OBPs last season and so far in 2018.
Still, it's been a remarkable career. His 99.4 career WAR leads Beltre among active players, and he could become just the 21st position player to reach 100 WAR (and just the 10th to start his career after World War II).
That extra $50,000 by the Cardinals was worth the investment.