Heading into the final week of MLB.com voting for the 2003 All-Star starters, Pujols led the National League in batting average, slugging, RBIs and runs, and he trailed only Cardinals teammate Jim Edmonds in home runs. Yet Pujols, then an outfielder, was fourth in the voting for a starting NL spot.
It was up to the fans here. Ballpark balloting had closed, just as it did this past weekend with the last paper ballots punched at Kansas City. The deadline to vote online was fast approaching, just as it is now with the clock ticking toward 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday with the Monster All-Star Online Ballot. Could a Triple Crown threat be denied back then?
"Pujols has played unbelievable. He's doing everything," Sammy Sosa said during that final week, when he was with the Cubs and among the three outfield vote leaders. "There are guys up there with good numbers. Whatever happens, it would be better if they pick someone with better numbers."
Fans did just that at MLB.com, and they did so in spectacular force. That final week, Pujols jumped from fourth to the NL's top vote-getter by being named on 2,030,702 ballots. That included 1,386,818 online votes, earning him the All-Star Online Balloting Top Vote-Getter Award that summer. Total online balloting at MLB.com skyrocketed to 50 percent more than in 2002. It also helped the Yankees' Hideki Matsui, who surged from seventh among American League outfielders in the final weeks straight into a starting role. Online balloting had officially arrived as a big-time difference maker.
"It's special," Pujols said right after bumping out Sosa in the NL outfield and being selected for his second Midsummer Classic, his previous one coming in 2001 as a rookie reserve. "I had a great time in 2001 when I made it, but definitely, it's going to be different this year, because I got voted in. The St. Louis fans and all the fans around the world who voted me in; it's pretty special. It's great."
Those are words to remember right now, as you hold the power to help decide someone's fate entering these final days. Fans can vote up to 25 times per registration. Recent history says that whatever you are seeing in the latest voting update will look a little different when the starting lineups are announced at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday on ESPN's "Major League Baseball All-Star Game Selection Show."
Last July, MLB.com announced that fans cast a record 2.3 million ballots in the final 24 hours, bringing the total ballots cast online to 11.5 million with more than 155 million online votes, both records. This resulted in some of the most hotly contested races in both leagues since fan voting began. Who will get the MLB.com swing votes this time? Will there be a Pujols surge by someone? Will it be like 2001, when fans bumped Cal Ripken Jr. past David Bell at AL third base, enabling Ripken to win the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player honor that year? They're waiting for your verdict.
The final NL voting update before Sunday's official announcement was just made in the NL, and that will be followed on Tuesday with the last weekly AL update. These are the closest races in which online-only ballots may make a difference.
AL catcher: The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated in the weekly voting updates, and that has included Boston's Jason Varitek at the top of this position each week. But Detroit has continued its run with the best record in baseball, and veteran leader Pudge Rodriguez closed ground on Varitek in the last update. Varitek (.252, seven homers, 34 RBIs through Sunday) had 831,154 votes to 803,964 for Rodriguez (.293/6/35), a difference of only 27,190. Both clubs have been sizzling. Jorge Posada of the Yankees was more than 200,000 votes off the lead. Joe Mauer of the Twins has been on a voting tear, busting into the top five (behind Chicago's A.J. Pierzynski) last week and starting this week with a Major League-best .368 average and some strong grassroots support.
AL outfield: Vlad Guerrero of the Angels and Manny Ramirez were a strong 1-2, and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki -- another online-vote dominator in this decade -- took over the third spot from the Yankees' Johnny Damon in the last update. Only 39,553 votes separated them. Toronto's Vernon Wells was in fifth, 243,726 off the starting pace, and we'll see if reigning World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, who is in fifth and 397,707 behind Ichiro, can find the Pujols Surge.
AL second base: Also too close to call, given the voting history the last week at MLB.com. Robinson Cano of the Yankees was in front with 796,204 votes. Mark Loretta of the Red Sox was 74,105 back, but a close eye must be kept on Chicago's Tadahito Iguchi, who had to make up a difference of 125,657 votes. Iguchi already has arguably the Play of the Year in the field, and a lot of voters just saw him hit a Brad Lidge 99-mph fastball for a game-tying grand slam in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday night.
NL outfield: While Pujols was sitting on a comfortable lead of more than a million votes more than New York's Carlos Delgado at first base, it's a wide-open race here. Jason Bay of the Pirates just leaped to first with 1,706,105 votes in his bid to start before his home fans at PNC Park. Carlos Beltran of the Mets and Alfonso Soriano of the Nationals round out the outfield leaders. Ken Griffey Jr. of the Reds is 117,939 behind Soriano, and Andruw Jones of the Braves is 116,777 behind Junior. Any of those five outfielders could wind up in or out, based on your considerations.
NL shortstop: Remember when Ozzie Smith used to own this category? This one is a horse race, and it just got a lot more interesting. Jose Reyes of the Mets was just named NL Player of the Week, with four hits in each of his last two games, but Jack Wilson of the Pirates just came from out of nowhere. He made a lightning jump to blow by David Eckstein of the Cardinals for second place, and he is only 81,988 votes away from Reyes. Edgar Renteria of the Braves and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies are fourth and fifth, respectively, and all are within striking distance in what is suddenly emerging as a drama race.
NL third base: This has been Scott Rolen's job recently, but the Cardinals third-sacker is going to need a big push late to return to that assignment. David Wright of the Mets has a lot of people talking MVP already, and he just extended his lead over Rolen to 345,344 votes. Wright has Morgan Ensberg (third place) doubled-up in the vote. Cardinal fans will need to pull a Pujols rally if this one is going to look differently on Sunday. It is important to note that in 2003, it wasn't just a team's fan support that took Pujols to the top; baseball fans in general saw a Triple Crown candidate seated fourth entering the last week and spoke loudly.
Recent history also shows that this week is just a warm up for intense online voting. For the fifth year, immediately following the conclusion of Sunday's announcement show, fans will select the final position player for each league's 32-man roster via the Monster 2006 All-Star Final Vote exclusively at MLB.com. In addition, fans will be able to cast their Final Man vote via their mobile phones, and more details will be forthcoming.
The Final Vote will provide fans the opportunity to cast their votes from two lists of five players from each league over a three-day period. NL All-Star manager Phil Garner of the Astros and AL All-Star manager Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox each will designate five players who will be the candidates for the Final Vote. Balloting will continue until that Wednesday night, and the winners will be announced on ESPN and MLB.com shortly thereafter.
But first, let's figure out the 31 identities on each roster. This is when it gets really interesting. The starting position players are still up to you.
The 77th All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports and broadcast around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pre-game ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive, national radio coverage, while MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage and MLB Radio will provide exclusive play-by-play coverage of the game on the Internet.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.