by Rowan Kavner
With a single off Mike Hampton in the seventh inning on April 2, 2001, Albert Pujols began his Rookie of the Year campaign and the first of 11 extraordinary seasons with the Cardinals, each of which included more than 30 home runs, nine of which included All-Star appearances, three of which brought him MVPs and two of which helped bring championships to St. Louis.
This week, Pujols returns to the city in which he amassed 2,073 hits, 445 home runs and 1,329 RBI. If it’s anything like the future Hall of Famer’s first trip back to St. Louis, when he was peppered with cheers and standing ovations before each of his 12 plate appearances as an Angel from June 21–23, 2019, it will be an experience to remember.
“It was special in 2019 when I first went there, and it’s going to be special when we go there (Monday) for the week,” Pujols said. “At the end of the day, for myself, I always try to let those things play out the way that they’re going to play out. But I just don’t like to bring distraction on myself.
“I try to just prepare myself for the game and the things that I have to do and let things play out the way that (they) did in 2019. Because at the end of the day, you can’t control things. If you start thinking about how things are going to play and it doesn’t go the way that you thought, then you’ll be disappointed.”
It’s highly unlikely he’ll be underwhelmed with the response if his first welcome back, complete with hugs and hap tips, was any indication.
He was so beloved in St. Louis that even his home run against the hometown team during his last return trip earned thunderous applause. The reaction meant a lot to the slugger, now in his 21st Major League season and 22 home runs short of 700.
“That’s something that was really special to me,” Pujols said. “I think it ranks up there — probably if it’s not the best moment of my career — probably up there one or two, including the World Series. That’s something that I will treasure forever. That’s something I will cherish forever with my family and friends that were part of that 2019 hot summer in St. Louis. I really enjoyed it, and looking forward to enjoying that again this week.”
The feeling is mutual for the fans at Busch Stadium, who are expected to fill out the stands more than ever before this season. Pujols modestly attributed the anticipated uptick in attendance to two teams vying to participate in October baseball, but the return of one of the club’s all-time greats is an undeniable catalyst.
Pujols considers St. Louis his foundation and his roots. He played with the Cardinals through his age 31 season before spending his next 10 years with the Angels. Pujols said he has no regrets about that decision. He’s grateful to see Cardinals fans still appreciate his work both on and off the field in the city.
He showered praise on their fans and the way they appreciate baseball history, whether it’s their own players making it or not.
“I was part of when Ken Griffey (Jr.) hit (his) 500th homer in Busch Stadium, and it was pretty impressive,” Pujols said. “They really appreciate good baseball, and they’re going to have a good feel with two great baseball teams and great organizations playing this week. It might be a little taste of an October playoff against the Cardinals and the Dodgers, who knows?”
As it stands now, that looks more likely for his current team than his former one.
The Dodgers enter St. Louis in second place in their division after dropping two of three to the first-place Giants, but they’re tied for the second-best record in baseball and are 13 games up on the second-place Wild Card team. The Cardinals are on the outside looking in but remain in the playoff hunt at 69–66.
Since joining the Dodgers on May 17 after being released by the Angels, Pujols accepted a part-time role playing primarily against left-handers for the opportunity to contribute to a team with championship aspirations. He has returned to the playoffs only once since winning the 2011 World Series with the Cardinals, and he has not played passed the Division Series since.
His impact on the Dodgers has been felt beyond the field, where he has helped the club with a .313/.350/.625 slash line against lefties.
“I would argue, more importantly, he has mentored everyone — that’s myself, coaches, players, veterans, young players — and everyone’s gravitated toward him,” said manager Dave Roberts. “It’s just really refreshing to see a future first-ballot Hall of Famer with such humility and willingness to help his teammates.
“What he’s done for the Dodger organization in a short period of time will sustain itself for quite some time.”
In what could be the slugger’s last trip to see his former team, depending how long the 41-year-old legend decides to play, Pujols is expected to be in the lineup Tuesday and Thursday. Until then, he’ll be ready if called upon off the bench, prepared to help a team with its eyes on a repeat championship.
“It’s an opportunity I never thought I was getting from this organization,” he said. “When I got the call, I got caught by surprise, but really excited and try to do the best that I can when I’m in the lineup or on the bench, because I need to be alert and prepared because there might be a chance that I have to come out and pinch-hit.
“So, it’s always like you’re always on your feet moving and getting your preparation. I’m really excited. We have a great ballclub, but at the end of the day, nobody’s going to (roll out) the red carpet. We’re going to have to earn it.”
Another special return to St. Louis is ahead for Albert Pujols was originally published in Dodger Insider on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.