Albert Pujols was once on a trajectory to become the most prolific St. Louis Cardinals player in its history, not a small feat for a team that has been around the National League since 1892 and had won a couple of major league titles at the original Browns of the 1880s, inventing the hot dog along the way as a bonus.
Not to mention a team whose lengthy history has been keynoted by the performance of Stan Musial, who spent his entire 22-season playing career in a Cardinals uniform and still holds the record for the most hits with one team in major league baseball history (3630). He was part of a Cardinals team that won three world championships in five years during the World War II era, winning the third just after the war ended in 1946. Their next was in 1964–the year after Musial finally stepped away at age 42, still a prolific hitter even in his final season. “The Man”, who later became a Cardinals executive, is deservedly immortalized with a statue in front of this incarnation of Busch Stadium.
But by 2011, Pujols was on his way to eclipsing Musial’s exploits. He had just helped the Cardinals win their second World Series title in five years, a thrilling seven-game comeback against the snakebitten Texas Rangers, hitting three home runs in Game Three to become only the third player in history to be that prolific in a single Fall Classic game. He had won Rookie of the Year, two MVP and hit over 400 home runs. He was a free agent at that point, and he was looking for a long-term contract to assure he would finish his career as a Cardinal, a la the one Derek Jeter had signed with the Yankees several years earlier.
Despite his track record, and his value to the franchise, the Cardinals inexplicably initially offered Pujols only a five-year deal. By the time the sting of what Pujols and his wife perceived as a slit the damage had been done, and when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim offered a 10-year deal and slightly more than a quarter-billion dollars, Pujols traded in one shade of red for another and vowed to lift the Angels to similar heights as he did the Cards.
Except that he didn’t. Between 2012 and 2020 the Angels made exactly one post-season and won exactly zero post-season games. And then last spring, with his contract winding down and beginning the season hitting below .200, the Angels released Pujols. While he definitely cemented his long-term financial success, his baseball legacy appeared to be forever tarnished as a bittersweet symbol of a money grab gone bad.
But then, faced with injuries and the pressure of trying to repeat a pandemic-asterisked World Championship, the Dodgers offered Pujols a lifeline and a chance to return to the National League. He made the most of it, hitting 12 home runs in 187 at-bats and helped the Dodgers win 106 games and advance to the NLCS. Retribution, to be sure. Pujols could have easily pulled a Willie Mays and exited a somewhat prolific contributor to a contending team other than the one he started out with.
But THEN, major league baseball adopted the universal DH rule, creating fifteen new jobs for hitters featuring Pujols’ credentials. And it just so happens the Cardinals needed a DH. So Pujols was signed for what was intended to be a victory lap. And in the first half of the season, that’s pretty much what it was,
This month is a whole ‘nother story. Pujols has gone on a tear of late, having hit five home runs in five games, the last two coming in Arizona Saturday night in a 16-7 rout. That now gives Pujols 692 home runs, tantalizingly close to passing Alex Rodriguez for the most homers hit by a Latino in the game’s history (696) and potentially only the fourth player to hit over 700. The Cardinals now also enjoy a five-game lead on the Brewers in a quest for the Central Division title.
And Pujols, in his own age-42 year, now not only has more homers than he hit in Los Angeles last year, he also moved into the number two all-time position for total bases on Saturday night. Passing–you guessed it, Stan the Man.
Pujols is part of a unlikely troika of veterans, including starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and fresh off the DL catcher Yadier Molina, who are all older than manager Oliver Marmol and veterans of the two previous title teams from this century. They provide needed experience and advice to the 36-year-old Marmol, whose own ascension to the job was panned during the off-season.
Yet somehow, in this brutally hot summer, Pujols and company are proving to forces to be reckoned with. As things currently look, they are on pace to have a cakewalk wild card homestand against Philadelphia or Milwaukee, which would have them on pace for an NLDS against the Mets. You know, the same team they beat in 2006 to advance to the World Series on a called third strike in Game Seven in the last post-season game to be played in Shea Stadium by–wait for it–Adam Wainwright.
You better believe I’m nervous.
But until that scene may be potentially replayed, I’m quietly rooting for Pujols to continue his assault on records, and for him to savor the cheers of a Cardinals fan base that is rediscovering their love for who is clearly the 21st century version of The Man. And he, in turn, is being reminded that money isn’t always the most important reward for playing a game.
You Go, Uncle Albert. All is forgiven. We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain. Hands across the water, hands across the sky. Just like McCartney, you’re still playing hits.