The third greatest Cardinal: Albert Pujols
After all the heartache of his departure from St. Louis and the disappointment of watching him ascend the record books while wearing the uniform of another team, there’s only one thing to do when Albert Pujols makes his return to Busch Stadium batter’s box Friday.
Yeah, I know. The news that Thursday morning in 2011 hurt like a foul ball off the finger tips.
While the Cardinals rope-a-doped negotiations on a new contract, Arte Moreno and his Angels scored a free agency knockout with 10 years and $280 million to make Pujols feel wanted. And, just like that, the promise of a career as a Cardinal was over.
Had baseball’s schedule makers brought the Angels and Albert the Great back to Busch in 2012, things might have gotten ugly. But the 7 ½ intervening seasons should have changed our perspective by now.
Pujols hasn’t been the same player since defecting to California and the American League, where he’s had no part in a single playoff victory. That contract has been an albatross, too, as the skills that made him a perennial candidate for MVP of the National League have been in a startling and sustained decline for eight years running.
For all the milestone moments Pujols could have shared with an adoring Busch Stadium throng had he stayed, those fans who have been paying attention know that, through the benefit of hindsight, Moreno did the Cardinals a favor.
That shouldn’t, however, obfuscate all that King Albert meant to a historic franchise. Had he retired after the 2011 season, instead of becoming the lightning rod of a tense and emotional offseason, his tenure in St. Louis alone warrants a place in the Red Blazer Club, a statue at the corner of Clark and 8th Street and induction into the Hall of Fame.
Pujols’ 11 seasons wearing the Birds on the Bat produced seven trips to the postseason, five division championships, three National League pennants and two World Series championships.
From 2001-2010, Pujols batted at least .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. It remains the longest such streak by any player over any 10-year period, and it ended only when Pujols batted .299 with 99 RBIs in 2011. Lou Gerhig was the previous record holder at nine years.
With the exception of 2002 and 2007, Pujols matched those lofty triple crown statistics with on-base percentages greater than .400, slugging averages over .600 and at least 100 runs scored.
Only Alex Rodriguez and Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Foxx matched Pujols’ 10-year run of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.
Hall-of-Famers Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Al Simmons are the only other big leaguers to drive in 100 or more runs over their first five seasons in the majors.
Pujols’ 83.8 total WAR remain the second-highest 10-year total among position players behind only Williams.
On Sept. 20, 2005, Pujols belted his 200th career home run, making him the third youngest behind Mel Ott and Eddie Matthews to reach that milestone. Only Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. got to No. 350 faster.
When Pujols collected his 3,000th hit in August of 2018, as a member of the Angels (he had 2,073 of those with the Cardinals), he joined Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Rodriguez as the only players with 600 home runs to reach that benchmark.
If Pujols makes it to 700 home runs — he needs 55 more as of Wednesday’s game — only he and Henry Aaron will have achieved that slugging achievement in tandem with 3,000 career hits.
His slash line for the Cardinals is historic: .328/.420/.617.
The Cardinals version of Albert Pujols was a once-in-a-generation player, even by the standards of a franchise that’s won more World Series championships than any team but the New York Yankees.
For his part, Albert bears no ill will for St. Louis, at least not to the franchise and its fans. He fully understands — also with the benefit of hindsight — what he had here. He’s been telling reporters since spring training that, come Friday, he’ll be wearing his heart on his sleeve.
“It’s been such a long time, but the memories are like it just happened,’’ Pujols told USA Today. “It’s been crazy the last couple of weeks just thinking about it, letting it sink in.
“I’m so pumped up right now I can hardly believe it. I know I’m going to be so emotional when I see everyone. ... It’s going to be one of the most special moments of my career.’’
Especially when 45,000-plus at Busch Stadium leap from their seats and greet him the only way they rightfully can.
By cheering. Wildly.