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Clean Machine: Sans Steroids, Albert Pujols Continues Triple Crown Chase vs. D-Backs in St. Louis

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Pete Rose is a numskull, but if he's your definition of evil, you need to invest in a new dictionary.

Yeah, Rose bet on games, including his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, while he was still playing/managing. And, yeah, that's bad, but compared to the slimy, steroid-rippled creatures who've been allowed to hijack baseball's record books, Rose's gambling seems kinda bush-league. He might be a pimple on the face of the planet, but maleficent? Charlie Hustle's too much of an idiot to be it, and ain't no way in hell he could spell it.

The folks who've made lucre out of steroids in baseball, on the other hand, are cagey enough to know that almost nobody gives a hoot about their transgressions -- not the vast majority of fans, who'd rather see tape-measure longballs than well-turned double-kills, and certainly not the commish, Bud Selig, who, if he had his druthers, would rather just paper over the whole rotten deal.

Now that's evil, all kinds of it, all wrapped up into one.

We can only think of one guy in all the land who's made clean money out of the steroids mess, and that's Albert Pujols, the anti-Manny. But even for the gifted Pujols -- the St. Louis Cardinals' sawed-off tree trunk of a first baseman -- that's been a long time coming.

Sure, the 6-3, 230-pound Dominican slugger looked like a lock for the Hall of Fame even after his rookie season of 2001, in which he played in all but one game, hit .329 with only 93 strikeouts, whacked 37 homers and 47 doubles, and knocked in 130 runs. He's been freakishly consistent since -- "The Machine," as some call him, has hit below .320 only once in his nine-year career (he finished at .357 last year), and has never hit fewer than 32 home runs in a season. Despite that, and two National League MVP awards (in 2005 and '08) and a World Series ring (in '06), he's about the quietest superstar who ever lived because 1) he's not flashy or outspoken, 2) he plays in small-market St. Louis, and 3) he's never been hit with even the whiff of a scandal.

Until this year, that is -- and that's not because the pillar of sports society did anything wrong, but because he's doing something marvelous.

Sans steroids (Pujols has said that he'll pee in a cup anytime, anyplace, for anyone), this anonymous superstar is chasing one of the more elusive ghosts of modern sports history: the first triple crown in either league since Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox did it in the Summer of Love. To put that in some kind of perspective, both in historical and Pujols terms, here are some figures to mull:

Yaz won his crown with 44 homers, 121 RBI, and a .326 average.

In Pujols' worst season (2007), Albert hit 32 homers and 103 RBI and batted .327. Pujols actually bettered Yaz's '67 trifecta numbers -- twice! -- in 2004 and 2006.

But this, finally, seems Pujols' year to validate the royal standing he's long had in nickname only (his main handle has always been Prince Albert). At the All-Star Break -- the game was held in St. Louis, appropriate in Albert's storybook season -- Pujols was batting .332 with 32 homers and 87 RBI. In addition to a shot at the crown, those astounding figures give Albert a decent chance of being the first non-steroid-tainted player to break Babe Ruth and Roger Maris' home-run records.

Here's hoping, for once, that the good guy finishes first.

Pujols and the Cardinals (first place in the National League Central at 49-42) host the Arizona Diamondbacks (fourth in the NL West at 38-51) tonight through Sunday as the second half of the season gets underway for both teams at St. Louis' Busch Stadium.

Here are the schedule pitching match-ups.

Tonight, 5:15: Arizona's Jon Garland (5-8, 4.53 ERA) vs. Chris Carpenter (7-3, 2.47)

Saturday, 4:15 p.m.: the D-Backs' Yusmeiro Petit (0-3, 7.91) vs. Adam Wainwright (10-5, 3.04)

Sunday, 11:15 a.m.: AZ's Dan Haren (9-5, 2.01) vs. Joel Pineiro (7-9, 3.20)

All games will be televised on Fox Sports Arizona and broadcast on KTAR-AM 620 and KSUN-AM 1400 (Spanish). More info: www.dacks.com.

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