Albert Pujols’ 700th home run is a full-circle celebration

By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer

LOS ANGELES — Before the pandemonium, the thunderous clap of the bat as Albert Pujols connected on his 700th home run, the trip around the bases that ended with a high-five from fellow Dominican star Adrián Beltré, the endless wave of hugs from teammates, the melodic chants of Pujols’ name and the curtain call, there was complete silence.

None of the 50,041 fans in attendance Friday night at Dodger Stadium dared disturb the history they knew they might witness as each pitch left Phil Bickford’s hand in the fourth inning. At the plate stood Pujols, the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer who revitalized his career last year in Los Angeles and then returned to the City of Angels on the cusp of history.

The Cardinals legend had launched his 699th home run an inning prior, a majestic, 434-foot missile to left field off starter Andrew Heaney. An inning later, Pujols stepped to the plate again, with the storybook ending to his extraordinary, 22-year career ready to be written. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called for a pitching change.

Pujols’ next home run would put him in rarefied air. Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth were the only major-leaguers with 700 home runs. Before the game — at the time two home runs short of the mark, with 11 regular-season games remaining in his illustrious career — Pujols downplayed the milestone.

“If it happens, it happens,” he claimed. “I’m not searching, not looking for it.”

Albert Pujols homers for second time, becomes fourth player in MLB history to hit 700 home runs

When St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols homered in the fourth inning Friday, he became the fourth player in MLB history to hit 700 home runs.

But as he blasted a hanging slider from Bickford on the third pitch of the at-bat, home run No. 700 certainly appeared meaningful — to the fans who rose to their feet and continued chanting his name, to the Cardinals teammates who sprinted out of the dugout, to the Dodgers who stood and clapped.

To him.

As Pujols rounded the bases, slapping first-base coach Stubby Clapp’s hand and pointing two fingers toward the sky, he thought of his children, who would later flank him at his postgame news conference. Upon touching home plate, he rushed toward the front row to find Beltré.

Before the game, Pujols told his countryman at batting practice that he wanted to accomplish this feat for the Dominican Republic.

“I knew where he was sitting, so it was really easy,” Pujols said, now the first Dominican player to hit 700 home runs. “I just wanted to share that moment with him because I think he would’ve done the same thing.”

As Pujols made his way back to the dugout, he shared a lengthy embrace with Yadier Molina, the other longtime Cardinals superstar in the midst of his major-league swan song. Before the game, Pujols and Molina received retirement gifts from the Dodgers’ Justin Turner and Max Muncy in the form of engraved sets of golf bags. 

Soon, they’ll have plenty of time to hit the links. But not yet. Not while Pujols’ incredible second-half surge continues for his playoff-bound team, the team with which he won two championships more than a decade ago and the franchise he will represent when he goes to Cooperstown. 

“My main focus is to continue to contribute, help this ballclub to win,” he said. 

Albert Pujols hits career home run No. 699 vs. Dodgers

Albert Pujols hits career home run No. 699 vs. Dodgers

The St. Louis Cardinals took a 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers when Albert Pujols launched home run No. 699 of his career on Friday.

Eleven years passed between Pujols’ two stints in St. Louis. “The Machine,” who posted a career 1.037 OPS with 445 home runs in his first 11 major-league seasons with the Cardinals, looked mortal for the next decade in Anaheim. Father Time appeared to catch up. Pujols hit his 500th and 600th career home runs with the Angels, but he limped to a 108 OPS+ over nine years with the franchise.

At 41 years old, 33 homers short of 700, slashing .198/.250/.372 after four straight seasons with a sub-.750 OPS, Pujols was released.

Four days later, the Dodgers offered him new life.

“If they wouldn’t have given me that opportunity,” Pujols said Friday, “I don’t think I’d be sitting here today.”

Last year, the Dodgers were honest and upfront about the part-time role they envisioned for the 10-time All-Star. They envisioned a veteran who could pinch hit, mash lefties and mentor young players. Pujols saw a chance to impact a championship-caliber club on and off the field. 

He believed his bat still had life.

“I feel like I’ve still got some gasoline left in my tank,” Pujols said after joining the Dodgers.

The match seemed to light a fuse in the three-time MVP.

Pujols quickly became a fan favorite in L.A. He did exactly what he was brought in to do, slashing .294/.336/.603 against lefties and going 14-for-39 with two homers in an unfamiliar pinch-hitting role.

“I think it actually invigorated him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Just being embraced by the clubhouse, the fans, it just shot some life into him. His words were that he was having as much fun as he could remember.”

Pujols did not complain about his part-time status. He became “Tio Albert,” ready to greet his teammates with a massive bear hug in the dugout after every home run.

“They brought me so much joy, not just to me but to my family,” Pujols said Friday. “I think they brought out something inside of me, that little boy, once again, that was missing that part of the game. I think you guys saw that last year.”

Still, Pujols knew the end of his career neared. The 2022 season would be his final ride, regardless of the record books, back in the city where his extraordinary career took off. He had six home runs at the All-Star break, when another event seemed to provide a spark.

An improbable run to the semifinals of the Home Run Derby — also at Dodger Stadium — appeared to unlock something in Pujols. He continued mashing, launching 12 home runs from Aug. 10 to Sept. 16. A lull followed last week, setting Pujols up to make history in the city that rewrote the last chapters of his career.

Pomp and circumstance greeted Pujols in his return to Dodger Stadium. A video tribute played on the DodgerVision boards, with Dodger players Julio Urías, Hanser Alberto, Turner, Muncy, Roberts and Smith all sharing how much Pujols meant to them and wishing him luck on 700 homers. Tens of thousands of fans packed the stadium, some wearing blue, others wearing red, all ready to cheer on a player who leaves a lasting impact.

Hours after the Cardinals’ 11-0 victory Friday, not even the pitcher who gave up the historic homer could hang his head.

“At first, I was upset that I gave up the home run,” Bickford said. “When the crowd reacted, seeing all the smiles, it was a very special moment for MLB, and Albert Pujols is also one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”

Back in the clubhouse, the Cardinals showered Pujols with beer. He took a ride in a laundry basket and struggled to get out. 

He believes the accomplishment might not fully hit him until his career is done, but he certainly seemed to appreciate it in real time. Pujols will go down in history as one of four batters ever to hit 700 home runs. On the other side, Bickford will go down as one of four pitchers ever to allow a 700th home run.

But he’s not thinking about it in those terms.

“I’m more just happy for Albert,” he said.

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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