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Learning to appreciate Albert Pujols from afar

Albert Pujols reached one of baseball's great milestones in hitting 500 home runs, but he did it for another team. The Cardinals have continued to succeed in Pujols' absence and many were bitter, including Pujols, when he left St. Louis, but now is a good time to appreciate the player that Pujols was, and hopefully still is.

He'll be back. They always come back.
He'll be back. They always come back.
Whitney Curtis

Putting Albert Pujols and his accomplishments into context is a difficult task. When I think about appreciation, I think about it in two ways. The first, like appreciating a work of art, occurs when I admire the craft, skill and work it takes to create beauty. The second relates to being thankful, like being happy for a good meal, good fortune, or a friend that comes through when you need it. When watching Albert Pujols on the Cardinals, I should have been able to experience both kinds of appreciation equally, but I was selfish.

For years, I should have appreciated Pujols in the same vein as appreciating a work of art or admiring great accomplishments. I was certainly amazed on many occasions, but my appreciation for Pujols was too often focused on being thankful that I had him on my side, knowing, as ridiculous as this sounds, that he would come through for me when my team needed him. Now that Pujols is gone, the latter form of appreciation has disappeared, leaving only memories and a new-found ability to appreciate Pujols in a way I was unable to before.

Many questions swirled around Pujols as he hit his 500th home run. Grant Brisbee looked at the diminished celebration for 500 homers after so many sluggers hit the mark in the previous decade. While he concluded everything was Rafael Palmeiro's fault, what struck me was how long it has been since anyone has passed the 500 home run mark. Five years may not seem like a big deal, but in the last 50 years, there have only been two longer droughts. It may be some time before we see another one if Adam Dunn or David Ortiz do not keep going as they age. Even with the increase in home runs over the past twenty years, 500 home runs is still a rare accomplishment.

In the Hunt and Peck post this week, lil_scooter mentioned "that you never forget your childhood heroes". Pujols was not a childhood hero for me. He was never even my favorite Cardinals player. My first favorite Cardinals player was Vince Coleman, and he signed with the Mets. Ozzie Smith had an acrimonious end to his career in St. Louis. Ray Lankford bridged the LaRussa transition before being traded away, and Jim Edmonds suffered through a poor 2007 before being dumped on the Padres. Seeing favorite or great players leave St. Louis is not easy, and just because we all so badly wanted Pujols to be different, to be our generation's Stan Musial, does not make it so.

In his column on Pujols' 500th home run, Bernie Miklasz wrote a great conclusion.

I got into sportswriting because I wanted to be in the house to witness true greatness, and be inspired by true greatness, and sit and write about true greatness. More than any athlete I've covered in a 35-year sportswriting career, Albert Pujols provided countless opportunities for me to do just that: see and chronicle greatness. So when he hit No. 500, I had nothing but good thoughts and warm feelings. I raised a glass in his honor.

We are more fortunate than Bernie. Bernie watched Pujols to experience greatness. We watched Pujols and experienced that greatness, but our experience went beyond a collective admiration. For fans, Pujols' successes were a cause for celebration because his victories were also ours.

The one thing that I love about sports is getting caught up in the moment. The intensity, the anticipation, and the potential for pure joy in that moment is incredible. Pujols has created more of those special moments when the world stopped than any other player I have ever seen. Those memories and feelings did not go to Los Angeles with Pujols. I retain them. While there will always be a part of me that wishes Pujols had stayed, I'm glad that I have this opportunity to fully appreciate one of the greatest baseball players of all time.