Albert Pujols’ return to St. Louis: It was as if he never left

Albert Pujols’ return to St. Louis: It was as if he never left

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“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile … back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country … back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time, back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” — Thomas Wolfe, “You Can’t Go Home Again”

ST. LOUIS — Nostalgia is a powerful weapon. It attracts so many, providing false comfort born of dreams only half-remembered, whitewashed by time and the long slog of ethereal existence. The times and places we long for are never, in reality, exactly as we remember them in our imagination. Except perhaps for the most blessed among us, like Albert Pujols.

“I’m gonna try to embrace it, try to enjoy it, and celebrate it with my family and wife and some friends,” Pujols said before the start of his last St. Louis series. He did all of that and more.

Pujols’ return to St. Louis this weekend was like a three-act fairy tale, corny as that may sound. One man — only a ballplayer at that — channeled the emotions of an entire city for three distinct games. The return. The homer. The farewell. And with that, we all move on, back to the grind of the long 2019 baseball season, back to our workaday worlds, back to daily batting practice and weekly columns. But few that were there to experience it will forget what unfolded along the western bank of the Mississippi, on a wet, storm-infused weekend, on the first three days of another Midwestern summer.

Act I: The return

The Angels landed in St. Louis in the middle of the afternoon on Thursday, giving Pujols a head start on his long-awaited homecoming. Of course, some disputed the fact that it was a homecoming in the first place. After all, a branch of Pujols’ foundation still operates here, he still participates in fund-raisers for it, and he still owns a home in a St. Louis suburb. Yet one fact was undeniable: Pujols would be playing in Busch Stadium for the first time ever as a visiting player, about 7⅔ years since his last game there, which was Game 7 of the 2011 World Series.

“Me and Kole [Calhoun] made sure we were out there early,” Angels star Mike Trout said. “We wanted to be there when he went running out of the dugout for stretching, because we knew it would be a pretty cool ovation. It was.”

With the Angels in town, there was more going on than Pujols’ return. Trout would be playing in St. Louis for the first time, which wasn’t at all the focus of media attention beforehand, but was acknowledged by the St. Louis crowd with a nice ovation the first time he was introduced. It also meant all three Molinas — the only brotherly catching trio in big league annals — would be getting together: Yadier (the Cardinals’ beloved backstop), Bengie (now a Cardinals broadcaster) and Jose (now the Angels’ catching coach). Knowing that Pujols would have a lot of ground to cover in a short time, the Molinas loaned him one of their cars.

“It was one of the good ones,” Yadier Molina said.

The day at the ballpark started with a long press conference, with Pujols answering questions for about 22 minutes, joking at times and growing misty-eyed at others, such as when he shared the memory of the late Darryl Kile telling him he’d made the Cardinals’ roster for the first time back in 2001.

“You have success in this game, you build great relationships,” Pujols said. “You accomplish so many things, but I think the best thing you accomplish is the relationships you build. With Yadi, with [Placido] Polanco, with [Mark] McGwire, I could list on and on. Nobody can take that away.”

There were 48,423 fans at Busch Stadium that night, a number made significant for this reason: It was the second-largest crowd in the history of the venue. (St. Louis drew 132 more fans on May 12 — Mother’s Day — this year against Pittsburgh. Go figure.)

The cheering and chanting for Pujols began well before the game did. On a wet night, many early-arriving fans crowded near the rail up from the Angels’ dugout, hoping for an autograph, or at least a glimpse and a wave. (Pujols did not disappoint.) There was a great roar when the starting lineups were announced. And when he stepped to the plate for the first time, the standing ovation went on for about 1 minute, 20 seconds and might never have ended if Pujols had not finally said to Molina, “Let’s get this thing going.”

Of course, Molina, whom Pujols has always affectionately referred to as his little brother, was battling a few emotions of his own.

“Yeah,” Molina said before the game. “Of course, having this time [together]. It’s going to be emotional.”

There were lesser versions of that first at-bat every single time Pujols strolled to the plate over the weekend. When it happened before his third at-bat on Sunday, Pujols couldn’t help but smile and shake his head. Standing ovations, roars raising and dying with every ball he hit into play, where as much the soundtrack of St. Louis this weekend as ragtime was 120 years ago.

Cardinals fans didn’t forget their own — Molina drew his usual loud roar when introduced, the Angels’ outs were cheered and they came to their feet when a St. Louis batter went deep. Yet every game felt like it was a series of Pujols moments strung together by anticipation of the next one, with the bizarre exception of a five-minute delay caused by an erroneous fire alarm on Friday. It blared across the field, freezing everyone in the park, including the players. The fans even started to leave before things got straightened out.

Pujols flied out on a well-struck ball to center his first time up, bringing the fans to their feet — Could he have? Did he really? — but it was just a routine fly out. He walked his next trip, spurring Redbird Nation to actually boo their own starting pitcher, Michael Wacha. Then Pujols beat out a roller to third that Matt Carpenter took approximately 13 minutes to get to. Pujols’ sprint speed was measured at 24.4 feet per second by Statcast — his best home-to-first reading in years. Think he wanted that hit?

“Awesome,” Pujols said. “It felt great. I didn’t think that I still had those legs, but it feels like [I’m] 25.”

After Pujols said that, he made a playful face at a reporter and added, “Don’t believe that.”

Finally, Pujols was removed for a pinch-runner in the seventh, giving the Busch Stadium crowd one last shot that night at mass adulation. The Angels lost, always at the forefront of Pujols’ thoughts, but the return had gone as well as it possibly could have. Any notion that there was lingering resentment over Pujols’ long-ago departure was thoroughly erased.

Afterward, Pujols lingered by his locker before showering and dressing, then was brought into the corridor outside of the Angels’ clubhouse for one last media scrum. When he stepped out and saw the size of the gathering, he ever-so-subtly rolled his eyes and drooped his shoulders — he was tired. But he regrouped quickly and answered every question.

“I can tell you if it’s up to these fans, they will stand out there [cheering] for three hours,” Pujols said. “Because that’s the appreciation that they have, not just to me but everybody that has worn that uniform. It is a special place still for me and I love it. But words can’t describe this night.”

It had been a long day, and the weekend was just getting started.

Act II: The homer

The middle of anything is problematic, neither beginning nor end, neither place of departure nor destination. Three-act dramas often die in the middle, as the momentum from the first act dies out and the playwright awkwardly gropes for the conclusion. And so it figured to be this weekend. We knew Friday’s game was Pujols’ grand return; we knew Sunday’s would be the fond farewell. But what would be the peg for Saturday’s contest?

As generous as Pujols was with his time and money during his trip to St. Louis, he was at his most generous with all of us on Saturday, when he provided us with the signature moment. That was a no-doubt, vintage seventh-inning blast into the Angels’ bullpen off St. Louis starter Dakota Hudson. All of it — the homer, the eruption as he circled the bases, the sight of close friend Yadier Molina throwing dirt at him as he crossed home plate — was fodder for a generation of highlight reels, especially the one that is pieced together for when Pujols is inducted in Cooperstown five years after he retires.

Still, the frozen moment, the one that spurred a mass outbreak of goosebumps, was the curtain call. Even though you knew it was coming, the sight of the once-staid and always composed Pujols bounding out of the dugout to acknowledge cheers that couldn’t have been louder — until they became louder — was unforgettable. That’s when it hit you: All of this is for a player on the visiting team.

“What makes [St. Louis fans] special is just the support, day in and day out,” Pujols said. “It didn’t matter whether we were playing good or bad. They just love their players. And not only in baseball. We saw that in football and now with hockey with the Blues winning. It’s just a great city to play sports.”

The Cardinals won the game, a fact that Pujols again bemoaned afterward. Yet he once again could hardly stop smiling. He knew what the rest of us did — for this weekend, at least, the score of the games was really beside the point. He provided the memory that became instantly embedded in Cardinal mythology.

There were 46,711 fans at the game but 10 times that will say they were there in years to come. And you know what they’ll say? They’ll say that they were there for Albert Pujols’ last home run in St. Louis, his record 111th at Busch Stadium III.

“It’s gonna be up there for me,” Pujols said. “For my career, for my family, my wife Diedre and my five kids and my friends and family that are here in town. It’s just a moment that I will treasure forever.”

Act III: The farewell

It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing if the Angels ended up playing the Cardinals in the World Series at some point in the next couple of years. That possibility aside, Sunday was almost certainly the last regular-season game Albert Pujols ever will play at Busch Stadium, and likely his last game there, period. He knew it and the 47,114 fans in attendance knew it.

The first bit of good news came in the hours before the game. After a third-straight rain-soaked day in St. Louis, a dire forecast for the evening suddenly improved with a storm system mostly drifting by to the south of the city. The skies lightened and the field was prepared in time for the clubs to take batting practice for the first time all weekend.

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Pujols, Molina swap jerseys after the game

Following the Angels’ win, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina hug at home plate and exchange jerseys with each other.

Pujols spent the pregame as he had spent the hours before the first two contests — hustling to fulfill ticket requests and media inquiries. He left $35,000 worth of tickets and luxury suite passes to friends and relatives during the series, and broke apart six-inch-high stacks of tickets to be distributed. He spoke before and after games, all with patience and a smile, almost as if he was actually enjoying himself. It was no act but, at the same time, you know the routine-driven Pujols is ready to get back to just playing baseball, not that he wouldn’t gladly accept another day like the last three.

“You know what, buddy,” Pujols said. “If I get to come tomorrow and do it again here, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I enjoy the game of baseball and I felt like this weekend took me back like it was 2011, in the playoffs and the World Series. I enjoy every moment.”

As the Angels took their turn in the batting cage on the field, Pujols was still trying to balance the needs of being a player in that night’s lineup with being the prodigal son returned. With a bat in his hand, he did a radio interview on the field with the Cardinals’ Spanish-language crew. He chatted with a season-ticket holder through the back screen. He convened with all three Molina brothers, who had gathered nearby to meet a young fan on crutches. Cries of “Albert! Albert!” rang out from the early arrivals.

Finally, Pujols was able to extract himself from the hub-bub, pausing first to exchange commiserations with Angels media relations guru Adam Chodzko, who helped keep him pointed in the right direction amid an endless stream of asks and inquiries and photo opps. Then he did what he most wanted to do, stepping into the batting cage and taking a few whacks.

Pujols was introduced before the game with several young fans who have been involved with his family foundation, which helps children living with Down Syndrome. Three of them threw out first pitches to Pujols, crouched at home plate. On the first one, he had to stretch like he’s done so many times at first base, but he fielded all three offerings.

“This is about celebrating with the best fans of baseball,” said Pujols, who also recorded a video message that was played for the fans on the scoreboard during the ninth inning. “To celebrate the time that I played here and, for me, the timing was perfect — eight years — because if I had come the next year after I had been here, I don’t think it would have been that special, like it was this weekend.”

The game was more of what we’d seen all weekend. Standing ovations every time Pujols’ name was announced for a plate appearance, beginning with a first-at-bat tip of the batting helmet. With runners on the corners for that first at-bat on Sunday, Pujols rolled to shortstop. In the third, he reached out and hooked a two-out single into the left-field corner, a ball that likely would have resulted in a double during Pujols’ early days. In the fifth, he bounced to short; in the seventh he singled again.

That brings us to the ninth, for what very well may have been Pujols’ final at-bat at Busch Stadium. Pujols was the fourth scheduled batter of the inning, so somebody needed to get on. Trout made quick work of that issue by lacing a hit to center to begin things. Justin Upton walked and Kole Calhoun singled, setting up an “are you kidding me” opportunity: Pujols at the plate, for the last time at Busch Stadium, with the bases loaded. One more ovation and one more tip of the helmet from Pujols to the adoring crowd.

It brought to mind the final at-bat for Stan Musial at the first version of Busch Stadium, an RBI single past the outstretched glove of Pete Rose. Musial was lifted for a pinch-runner. It also stirred memories of Ted Williams’ last at-bat homer, and Derek Jeter’s last at-bat single. Pujols has hundreds of more at-bats in front of him, but this one is different because we knew what it (probably) was — a Hall of Famer’s last at-bat in the city that loved him most.

When the count went to 1-1, the crowd started in with the “Albert! Albert!” chant for the first time in the game. The Angels’ lead was just 2-0 — the fans were rooting for what would almost certainly be a decisive blow against their own team. The count went full after Pujols took a 2-2 pitch that looked like a strike on the pitch tracker. (Home plate umpire Angel Hernandez probably did the right thing.) The fairy-tale finish was not to be: Pujols popped weakly to first baseman Matt Carpenter.

But you know what happened anyway? The St. Louis fans cheered Pujols so loudly and incessantly that he had to come out the dugout one more time for a curtain call.

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Pujols gets curtain call after last at-bat of series

Albert Pujols pops out in his final at-bat and walks off to an ovation. The Cardinals fans insist on a curtain call and Pujols answers by acknowledging the crowd.

“There nothing that [the fans] did this weekend that was surprising,” Pujols said. “That’s what they do. We shared a lot of great moments, ups and downs with this organization in 11 years here.”

Sure, all of this celebration in St. Louis was motivated by heroics from a player who left town of his own volition nearly eight years ago. And so much of what’s been written about Pujols since has been related to the cold analysis of what he’s getting paid by the Angels against what he’s produced during his declining years. That analysis has its place.

But what this weekend did above all else was to remind us starkly of what Pujols was and what he did, right here in St. Louis, and how that towers above everything he does on the field now, and how it all pales to what he does off the field and what he means to so many.

Epilogue

The thing about Pujols’ 2019 season is that it’s not exactly living up to by-now-familiar narratives about his failing body and suboptimal performance. No, Pujols isn’t providing surplus value on the $28 million he’s slated to earn this season. Yet if you dig beneath the hood long enough, you see a player who hasn’t raised the white flag against the relentless onslaught of Father Time.

The superficial numbers are modest. He’s hitting .237/.309/.448 with 13 homers and 41 RBIs — a pace of 27 and 85 for the season. At the same time, his strikeout rate has improved by nearly two percentage points over last season, his best mark since 2015. His walk rate is at its highest since 2010 — the last monster Pujols campaign. Looking at those categories in ratio to each other, Pujols is displaying better command of the strike zone in any season since 2011. His secondary average is his highest since 2012, and his isolated power figure is his best since 2015.

What’s kneecapped Pujols’ offensive percentages is a career-low .214 BABIP. A number that low is invariably at least partially due to bad luck. In his case, it’s also not a complete fluke — Pujols’ line-drive rate is less than half what it was even a season ago, as he’s taken to producing more fly balls from an average launch angle that is at a Statcast-era high, and he rarely goes to the opposite field as he once did with such acumen.

Pujols has had to make concessions to age and injury, though, at 39, it would be freakish if that wasn’t the case. Still, with a nice run of luck in the BABIP department the rest of the way, Pujols could end up with his best full season since at least 2016. Say what you will about his decline, especially as it relates to his contract, but the guy is still battling.

“Obviously, he has meant a lot for St. Louis,” Trout said, who somehow seems unaware that all of the plaudits he gives Pujols also mostly apply to him. “I was looking at his numbers. If he retired after his 11 years here, he’d still be in the Hall of Fame. It’s pretty remarkable. But it’s a great time for his family, and obviously for him.”

That in itself might partially explain why the fan base Pujols jilted eight years ago holds no animosity. It’s quite the opposite — his absence has seemed to make everybody’s heart grow just a little bit fonder over the years. And as a result, this series proved to be one of those rare cases when the pangs of nostalgia were quenched by a reality that perfectly matched our wildest imaginings.

Maybe Tom Wolfe was right. Maybe you can’t go home again. But for Pujols and Cardinals fans, maybe it’s because the entire weekend lacked that whole “he’s no longer one of us” vibe. It’s a cliche to say so, but anyone lucky enough to spend some of the last few days at Busch Stadium would agree: The truth about this weekend in St. Louis is that it felt like Pujols had never left. And perhaps in the most important ways, he never did.

MLB News

via http://www.espn.com – MLB http://www.espn.com

June 23, 2019 at 10:16PM

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