Albert Pujols didn't make the All-Star team last year, and it was viewed as a fluke.
Pujols had a mediocre first half -- by his standards -- and was on the disabled list with a fractured left wrist the day rosters were announced. Then he recovered ahead of schedule and declared himself ready to join the team. Commissioner Bud Selig told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he made phone calls in an attempt to have Pujols added as a replacement. It didn't work. When a spot became available, manager Bruce Bochy picked Miguel Montero.
But it would be a one-year hiatus, nothing more. At the time, could anyone have suggested otherwise? Pujols' first name might as well be "All-Star Albert." He had been a fixture in baseball's Midsummer Classic for a decade, appearing as a rookie in 2001 and then every year from 2003 through 2010. He made seven starts.
President Obama and Stan Musial attended the event in St. Louis three years ago, but Pujols was the central figure.
This year's All-Star Game is in Kansas City, a place of great significance in Pujols' life. He went to high school there. He attended college there. He met his wife there. He has owned a home there for many years. So, it is altogether fitting that Pujols will be back in Missouri for the All-Star break.
But he's not going to Kansas City.
"I'm going back home," Pujols told me Friday, "back to St. Louis."
Pujols is nearing the midpoint of his first season with the Los Angeles Angels, but his wife and children still live near the city and team he left behind. So, after the Angels finish the first half with a July 8 home game against Baltimore, Pujols plans to hop on a flight to St. Louis.
Pujols doesn't expect to be standing on the first-base line at Kauffman Stadium when Joe Buck announces the American League All-Stars to fans across the country (MLB on FOX, July 10, 7:30 p.m. ET). There is a very simple reason for that: Pujols doesn't believe he's done enough in 2012 to warrant that honor.
"It's great to be an All-Star, but you have to put up the numbers to be an All-Star," Pujols said. "I don't think I have the numbers. I think there are so many guys in this clubhouse who deserve that more than me.
"You don't plan on yourself to be in the All-Star Game every year. It's a reward. If you go, you go. If you don't, there's next year."
Pujols, 32, is no longer perceived as an indomitable force -- perhaps because he was so battered by criticism during those 27 homerless games to begin the season. Still, the notion of an All-Star Game without him is jarring. After signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels, he was supposed to become the face of a different franchise while giving fans new reason to stay up for the West Coast games.
But the Angels aren't Pujols' team, the way the Cardinals were. They are, instead, an excellent team that includes Pujols. The man with three MVP awards isn't the MVP of the Angels.
Mike Trout, a rookie, is responsible for their newfound energy. Mark Trumbo, a second-year player, is their leader in home runs, RBI and OPS. If AL manager Ron Washington chooses his roster correctly -- and we will find out Sunday if he does -- then Trout and Trumbo will be on the team. Pitchers Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Ernesto Frieri have strong credentials, too.
Pujols? He's been a good No. 3 hitter. Among qualifying major-league first basemen, he ranks seventh in OPS (.799) and is tied for sixth in home runs (12). His numbers are pretty good, but not elite. He's on pace for around 25 home runs and 100 RBI -- an exceptional season for most players, an "off" one for him. It speaks to the capriciousness of such titles that Pujols is rarely mentioned with Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton in today's "Best Player in Baseball" discussion.
Yet, there are scenarios in which Pujols will need to change his All-Star break plans. If Washington takes more than two first basemen, Pujols has an excellent chance to make the team. (At his position in the AL, only Paul Konerko and Prince Fielder rank ahead of Pujols in OPS.) Frankly, I would like to see Pujols make the team -- because of his ties to Kansas City, because he's hitting .341 this month, and because the All-Star Game needs to showcase great players (not merely great first halves).
Either way, I doubt we've seen the last of Pujols in the All-Star Game. Adam Dunn -- who could easily make this year's team -- has shown just how much more comfortable a power hitter can become during his second tour of the AL. Next year, when he's even more familiar with his surroundings, Pujols could post MVP-caliber numbers again.
Pujols could post MVP-caliber numbers in the second half of this year, too. But as of Sunday morning, it will be too late to improve his All-Star case.
"Every All-Star Game is great, no matter what city it's in," Pujols said. "I'm pretty sure (Kansas City) is going to do a great job. Major League Baseball is going to put on a great event. In the nine All-Star Games I've been in, it's always pretty special. I'm pretty sure it's going to be special in Kansas City."
Pujols may not be there to find out. To his credit, he understands why.