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By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The old man walked slowly.
As Albert Pujols waddled — harsh, but the only way to correctly describe it — his way towards the home dugout at the Cardinals’ spring training stadium, he conjured up memories of the past and apprehensions about the future.
His laborious gait did not exactly lend confidence that imminent athletic achievement was at hand. Pujols slugged forward like his bones were made of lead, a slight limp hampering his progress. His enormous upper-half looked like oversized baggage that his lower half was tasked with lugging around an airport. It was unclear whether Pujols was savoring the moment or if he simply couldn’t move any faster. Very little, besides his recognizable face and the indelible No. 5 on the back of his red uniform, signified sporting greatness.
But the 3,176 Cardinals faithful hooting and hollering beneath the South Florida sun cared not one bit about Pujols’ physical condition. For all they were concerned, he could have strolled out there leaning on a walker. As he passed the St. Louis bullpen down the right field line, his new teammates, most of whom had never played or even met the franchise icon, gave him a standing ovation.
And that was all because about 12 hours before, just after midnight on March 28th, 2022, news trickled out that Pujols, one of the greatest hitters in the sports’ history, would return to the team and the city that incubated his legend, for his 22nd and final MLB season. That, even for the most cynical realist, was reason to celebrate.
Later in the day at his (re)introductory press conference, Pujols addressed the media alongside owner Bill DeWitt, GM John Mozeliak and new manager Oli Marmol. Marmol, who’d been named team skipper only a few months prior and had yet to lead the Cards in an MLB game, was a whopping six years younger than his newest pupil. When Marmol was drafted by the Cardinals in June of 2007, Pujols had already bashed 263 career bombs.
In his introductory remarks, Mozeliak struck a nostalgic tone, listing off Pujols’ incredible list of achievements as a Cardinal before turning an eye towards the future.
“We all hope for a magical year, one that is defined by team success and one that honors the careers of Yadi, Adam and now Albert. This is a unique opportunity for all of us, three legends making their final lap around baseball. Storybooks do not always have happy endings and one cannot predict the season, but this story has a chance to be historic.”
Storybooks do not always have happy endings.
There were reasons for Mozeliak to hedge. Pujols had spent the last decade wasting his thirties in various parts of Los Angeles, his decaying body betraying him year after year. He’d enjoyed a nice 2021 for the Dodgers, obliterating left-handed hurlers off the bench, but had looked entirely lost against Atlanta in the cauldron of the postseason. To say Pujols’ best years were behind him was the understatement of the millennium; he hadn’t posted an above-average OPS since 2016. Over the last seven seasons he’d produced -0.4 WAR, his career total tragically dipping below 100.
And with the Cardinals set to compete for a division title in 2022, Pujols and his feel-good story didn’t exactly fit the plan. He’d be an invaluable presence in the clubhouse and might emerge as a useful bat against lefties, but the potential downside was immense. What if Pujols struggled? Would the Cards rip off the bandaid, yanking the future hall of famer off-stage into retirement, or would they suffer through it for the good vibes and ticket sales? Albert talked about passing A-Rod for fourth on the all-time home run list, about reaching the 700 home run plateau. But to the level-headed, those aspirations seemed more like fantasy than reality.
My parents once saw Frank Sinatra at the end of his time as a performer, in the early ‘90s, when he was a ghost of his greatness. On stage, Sinatra appeared untethered, bloated and frankly, quite drunk. They call it one of the most bizarre nights of their lives. One of the century’s brightest stars had been dimmed by the realities of time. If you don’t know when to leave the party, you might overstay your welcome. People won’t remember you for what you accomplished, but for how you lingered.
Somehow, some way, against all odds, Albert Pujols has refused to dim.
After enduring years of irrelevance, decay and baseball ineptitude, Pujols is enjoying a season for the ages, a well-deserved victory lap for one of the all-time greats. For the thousands of St. Louisians who harbored resentment or ambivalence after Albert left town and understandably didn’t follow his California jaunt with great interest, his renaissance might seem obvious, inevitable. It’s Albert Pujols! Of course he’s great!
But Pujols’ return has been nothing short of remarkable, the 99th-percentile outcome when he and the Cardinals agreed to a reunion in late March. It’s been as magnificent and as feel-good as DeWitt and Mozeliak could have ever hoped. While chasing history in front of sold-out crowds at Busch Stadium and across the country, Pujols has re-written the end of his story.
Most notably, he’s been… actually good, a legitimate contributor to a Cardinals team set to win the NL Central and make things difficult for the Dodgers, Mets and Braves come October. His 145 OPS+ is tied for the 13th-best in all of baseball, ahead of guys like Mookie Betts, Julio Rodriguez and Pete Alonso, while his 1.169 OPS against lefties ranks third. The only player with more home runs against lefties this year is Aaron Judge. And perhaps most importantly to all my fellow nerds, Pujols’ 1.5 WAR this season raises his career total back above the 100 WAR mark, per Baseball-Reference calculations.
No moment better encapsulated Pujols’ magical season than homer No. 697. Last Sunday, with the Cards down a run in the ninth against Pittsburgh, the baseballing sorcerer ripped a 2-0 heater out to center field to give St. Louis the lead and the eventual win, while simultaneously passing Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time list. A blast meaningful on multiple levels: historic and useful.
That homer elevated Pujols into elite company, rarified air. The only players with more long balls than him are Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, three of the game’s four greatest players (Willie Mays is the other). That’s now a group that Pujols has undeniably become a part of, one of the true all-time greats, whether or not he reaches the 700 home-run mark over the season’s final few weeks.
Regardless of how he performed, this season was always going to be a celebration of Albert Pujols, baseball player. If he struggled, he would have handled it with grace, as would have the Cardinals. But his rejuvenation has altered the lens. His methodical home run trots, which in years past looked arduous and painstaking, now carry an aura of grace and elegance. Albert Pujols, a legend for the ages having a season for the ages, relishing it all, taking his time.
Atlanta Braves’ John Smoltz talks about facing Albert Pujols and his race to 700
Ben Verlander and Atlanta Braves’ legend John Smoltz talks about Albert Pujols’ race to 700 home runs and whether he believes it can be done.
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ, is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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