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Prince takes crown, but it's Pujols' court

Prince king, but it's Pujols' court

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ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols is still the best hitter in the world. Losing one State Farm Home Run Derby does not, cannot, will not change or alter in the least that overriding fact.

A lot of people thought, or at least wished, that Pujols would win the Derby on Monday night, for some very reasonable reasons. On the side of accomplishment, Pujols is having the best year of an already incredible career. On the side of sentiment, the All-Star festivities are in St. Louis. What better place for Pujols to win everything in sight?

And he was the center of the Derby proceedings at Busch Stadium, well before he came to the plate and began to swing for the fences. There was a certain kind of momentum building toward a Pujols victory in an event that has come to rival the All-Star Game itself in popularity.

In modest ceremonies before the game began, Pujols was acknowledged as the leading vote-getter among all All-Stars. He was recognized as the National League's Player of the Month for June. He was given an ovation at every turn. When Nelson Cruz of the Rangers finished his first round of the Derby with an impressive 11 homers, he was asked to comment and he responded:

"I can't wait to see Albert hit out there."

It was all Pujols, all the time. The crowd of 45,981 was more than supportive, probably closer to adoring. Pujols, in fact, was a dominant topic at the player-interview sessions, even with other players.

The run production of Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder would have been good enough to make him a starter at any other position in either league. But he couldn't start in this All-Star Game, because Pujols is not merely an All-Star, but a transcendent figure. And Fielder is fine with that.

"This is Albert's place," Fielder said. "Albert's awesome. I mean, what are you going to do? This guy is unbelievable. And he deserves it. Doing what he's doing is just unbelievable."

When he was asked what separated Pujols from every other hitter, Fielder chuckled and responded: "I don't really know, because if I knew, I'd do the same thing he's doing."

The irony was that Fielder won the Derby, defeating Cruz in the final round. Pujols, who was eliminated in the second round, was gracious in defeat.

"I wish I would have put on a better show for our fans," he said. "But I just thank God for giving me the opportunity to be around these great players."

The ovation given to Pujols after he was eliminated was prolonged, loud and sincere. The Cardinals fans have a couple of lifetimes of goodwill stored up in the case of Albert Pujols.

Every Home Run Derby takes on a life of its own, although in recent years, those lives seem to last longer and longer. This one was characterized by Pujols being the preordained star of the show and by what appeared to a widely varying amount of power among the contestants.

Of the four American League competitors, only one, the recently added Carlos Pena of Tampa Bay, actually had a big league reputation as a home run hitter.

Cruz, another late addition to the AL All-Star team, in this case as the replacement for the injured Torii Hunter, was a slugging revelation. The Derby averages roughly one of those per year.

There were no power surprises in the National League. Instead, there was a power-hitting first baseman everywhere you looked. Ryan Howard of the Phillies, a Derby winner in 2006, and he had a 58-home run season. Fielder hit 50 home runs in '07. San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez does not have those kinds of raw numbers, but he spends half his playing time in baseball's most pitcher-friendly facility, PETCO Park. His home run total at the break -- 24 -- is even better than it looks. He has real power.

Fielder pounded the ball all over the premises in the Derby, hitting, for instance, a 497-foot homer in the first round. Rather than tiring, he simply warmed up, driving a ball 503 feet, into right-center initially and into the night, eventually.

Fielder is a true power hitter and a richly deserving winner of the event. But he would be the first one to admit that he still isn't Albert Pujols. And neither is anyone else.

One of the things that struck everybody, Fielder included, was the pervasive fan support for Pujols. It wasn't a surprise, but it was still impressive.

"It was what you expected, it was awesome," Fielder said. "This is Albert's stage. It was kind of cool to see how the fans love him here. I wouldn't have expected anything less."

Yes, a Pujols victory in the 2009 Derby would have been fitting based on his accomplishments and it would have been pleasing to Cardinals fans, a group justifiably distinguished by loyalty and devotion to the Redbirds.

But one thing a Pujols victory here wouldn't have been was necessary. His greatness has been on display for nine seasons. A victory in a home run-hitting contest is not required as proof of his worth.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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