I went to Busch Stadium on Friday, like a lot of St. Louis Cardinals fans, to say hello to old friend Albert Pujols for the first time since the 2011 World Series.
As I mentioned in this space earlier in the day, I had no doubt the fans were going to greet him warmly. The “to boo or not to boo controversy” was a non-starter. Pujols got a standing ovation for coming out on the field to stretch, for every single at-bat — and for hitting a home run against the home team. I’ve never seen that before — and I doubt I will ever see it again. The only booing happened when the Birds walked Pujols and on a couple of pitches where St. Louis hurlers worked him inside.
Chants of “Al-bert, Al-bert, Al-bert” happened again and again. It was magical.
But, as the first game of the three-game set moved along, my mood changed. I don’t think anyone with the Los Angeles Angels organization would disagree after seeing the spectacle in St. Louis that Albert, by all rights, should have been with the Cardinals now and forever. Let’s forget about the contract and the money for a minute. Those were the obstacles that kept Pujols from realizing his destiny. Let’s not talk about whether the home team made the move that made the most financial sense and don’t tell me the club couldn’t have afforded to re-sign Yadier Molina or to pick up Carlos Beltran because I’m not buying it. Some things are just meant to be and Pujols should have been a Cardinal forever.
I suddenly felt sad because I began to realize, watching Pujols reaction, that we were all robbed of what was supposed to be and, while we were in some ways saying hello to Albert, what he was really there to do was to finally say goodbye.
If the Angels couldn’t make it to St. Louis in the first seven years after Pujols left the Cardinals, what are the odds they’ll come back in the next three? After building an incredible relationship with Cardinals fans during the first 11 years of his career, it’s a shame that all we got was three more games. It should have been so much more. Even Albert knew it. At least twice he snuck into the clubhouse to dab away tears over the weekend. And during his Friday night interviews he kept referring to the Cardinals as “we” and “us.” He called the fans “ours” which could have been referring to Major League Baseball, not the Cardinals. Except then he dropped the Best Fans in Baseball phrase to end all doubt.
Yeah, I know Pujols isn’t as great as he used to be. But he’s still pretty darn good in many ways. The power is still there. And he’s still a big proponent of playing the game the right way, being prepared and making the most out of every situation. He probably would have to sit more than he used to in order to save his legs. But if Pujols would have taken the nine-year, $210-million he was offered, it would have been amazing to see the greatest Cardinals player since Stan Musial collect his 3,000th hit and his 500th and 600th home runs with St. Louis.
I still hope somewhere down deep inside that the Redbirds could come up with a way to trade for Pujols and let him finish his career here as improbable as that seems. Pujols has $59 million left over the next two years. Maybe St. Louis could trade Dexter Fowler to Los Angeles for Albert. But that still would leave St. Louis to take on $28 million in payroll. Plus there is that little problem about the Cardinals having Paul Goldschmidt locked in at first base. That’s a lot of scratch to pay a guy to be a pinch hitter and occasional starter. So, it just ain’t gonna happen. Still, I would have given an awful lot to be in the room when Pujols met with Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt and then General Manager John Mozeliak before the start of the series.
The only way we’re going to see Pujols again at Busch Stadium is if they somehow play the Angels in the World Series. And, if they do, I sure hope St. Louis fans won’t cheer for him to hit any home runs. If the did, it might just kill St. Louis Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson.
Observations from the St. Louis Cardinals-Los Angeles Angels series
▪ Taking two out of three games against the Angels in an emotionally-charged set of circumstances was nice. But the way the series ended was an embarrassment. Again, the Cardinals were made to look foolish by a pitcher with an earned run average over 4.50 at the start of the game and they couldn’t do anything with their best (read highest paid) pitcher on the mound. Miles Mikolas wasn’t bad, save for walking the opposing pitcher. But the bullpen was terrible. The Cardinals somehow managed to make it interesting in the bottom of ninth, turning a six-run deficit into having the tying run on base. But their meltdown in the top half of the inning and failure to do anything for the first eight innings was too much to overcome.
▪ I’m glad the news about fireballing closer Jordan Hicks was encouraging. I just wish I could believe the Cardinals when they say an injury isn’t a big deal. They’re the kings of understatement -- if not fibbing. Losing Hicks would be a tremendous blow this season and elbow trouble could easily change the trajectory of his promising career. Fingers crossed.
▪ The Cardinals need to find a place to let Tommy Edman play. One of the few bright spots for a Cardinals player on Sunday was the fleet-footed infielder’s stand up triple. Sadly, with one out, Matt Carpenter couldn’t even put the ball in play to drive the kid home. But Edman plays with a lot of talent and a lot of hunger. I’d love to see him get some starts at second, especially with Kolten Wong collecting three hits in his last 23 trips to the plate. I also wouldn’t mind seeing him get a chance at third where Carpenter’s arm and range leave much to be desired.
▪ Jose Martinez looked like his swing was just off as he fell into a slump the past couple of weeks. But he looks like he is finally getting locked in with a couple of singles and a towering home run. The Cardinals offense simply doesn’t go without Martinez’s bat.