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Albert Pujols defined an era of Cardinal baseball

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An era of success was anchored by the game’s best. He’ll soon be back where it all started.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

I moved to Missouri when I was 6 years old.

I came from Alabama, which was unquestionably Braves country. It was 2000, and Atlanta was in the middle of an incredible run of division success.

My dad grew up in the northwest corner of Alabama, and he supported the Braves due to geography, but he spent his childhood listening to KMOX and cheering on the Cardinals.

A move to Missouri was pretty perfect for his lifelong, long-distance fandom. And it would prove more than enough to woo me away from a love of Chipper Jones and the later years of the Big Three.

We lived a few hours from St. Louis, so my first chance to get to a game at Busch II wasn’t until the 2001 season. I’ll never forget walking through the tunnel and having the light break over me, instantly hit with so many sensations.

Hearing the chatter of the crowd and the calls from the concessions vendors. The green tiers lined with flags of past championships and retired numbers.

As a 7-year-old, it was a treat to see the final season of Mark McGwire. It was even more special to see a rookie Albert Pujols begin his Hall of Fame career.

The hype

I know every era of Cardinal fan has their stories of what it was like to be a kid in the fandom. I’m well aware I hit the jackpot with my time.

As a kid obsessed with baseball in Missouri in the early 2000s, Albert Pujols was everywhere. A friend of mine had a “Got Milk?” poster on his closet door with a full-size Albert sporting a milk mustache. There were bat days, bobbleheads and trading cards. On the “wear red” day of the classic Red Ribbon Week, the school hallways were a sea of Pujols shirseys.

There were myriad mentions in the mainstream media, too. I’ll never forget seeing Albert’s ESPN spot, titled “The Machine.”

I loved seeing a Cardinal having fun in the national spotlight. He was definitely a machine, but it made him human.

In August of 2006, there was a broadcast where the crew talked about a “Babe Ruth test” Pujols had taken part in, to test his physical and mental capabilities. I’ve never forgotten hearing that, in a test where he was to depress a finger tapper as many times as possible over a certain period, he was pressing so hard and fast that he threw the mechanism out of alignment. On the portion of the test focused on hand-eye coordination, he scored so high that researchers didn’t have a category for his results.

The results

Pujols is undoubtedly headed to the Hall of Fame. He’s achieved most of his major accolades—like 600 home runs, 2000 RBI and 3,000 hits—as an Angel. But he did the bulk of the work as a Cardinal.

Over his 11 years as a Cardinal, he never had fewer than 634 PA. His OPS was under 1.000 in only three seasons, but never below .900.

Pujols had a slash line of .328/.422/.617 over those 11 years. His wRC+ was 168. There were 408 home runs and 1199 RBI. It’s hard to remember the speed that was once present with his current form, but there were even 83 stolen bases.

He racked up the hardware, too. Pujols was the NL Rookie of the Year, two-time Gold Glover, two-time Hank Aaron Award-winner, the 2004 NLCS MVP, three-time NL MVP and three-time Sporting News Major League Player of the Year.

Pujols was never a player who crumbled when it mattered. Over seven postseason appearances with the Cardinals, his slash line was .330/.439/.607. He gave us a lot of memories—but we’ll get there.

Tony La Russa has often referenced those years that Albert was a Cardinal as one of the best decades of baseball we’ve ever seen. This is a subject where I’m unashamedly biased, but I’d have to agree.

The memories

Ben Godar did a lovely outline of Albert’s first home runs at Busch Stadium(s). Pujols gave us a lot of memories over his 11 years wearing the birds on the bat.

It would take a much larger post to cover them all. So I’ll touch a few. There were, of course, the postseason memories. Like the shot heard round the world, when he essentially broke Brad Lidge:

Any piece of Pujols’ monster 2011 postseason would be impressive, but it’s hard to forget his three-homer game in Arlington:

There were other moments, though. Smaller ones, where he could wow you and have it stick in your brain for a lifetime. For me, the biggest one of those was earlier in that 2011 season. It was a weekend series against the Cubs. Pujols delivered not one, but two walk-off home runs to finish off the series against Chicago. The second of the two:

I’ve never forgotten watching those games, and seeing him come into home with the high-step. I don’t know why, there’s no reason for it to stick out. It was a fun time, but it wasn’t a huge, pivotal moment.

That’s really the effect he had. He could pull off big, dramatic efforts and do things other players couldn’t. And he did it with a real love of the team and the city.

The impact

Albert Pujols left, sure. Given his track record, the offers he received from both St. Louis and Los Angeles, and the AAV we see on contracts today, it’s hard to blame him.

It’s also hard to blame the front office for not making a harder push, given what we’ve seen from him in the years since. He isn’t the same player he was.

Maybe it was all for the best.

Pujols still hosts his golf tournament in St. Louis. He speaks fondly of the city and the fans.

In an interview with the LA Times, Pujols said this of his return:

“I don’t want to know because if you start thinking about it and it doesn’t go that way you might be a little disappointed. But I’m pretty sure [the reaction will] be emotional.”

“I don’t get too emotional, but for myself it will be like that,” Pujols said. “When I got to St. Louis, I was 21 and when I left I was 32. I got there as a baby and left as a man.”

In some alternate reality, Pujols signed a major deal with the Cardinals and slowly eroded into the player he’s been. There was no DH spot for him to fill. He probably crippled the team, and faded into the dark.

Instead, the legacy of Pujols as a Cardinal is one filled with postseason runs, excitement, awards and two Commisioner’s Trophies.

When he steps into the box this weekend, he’ll be coming back to the place where he is still:

  • 2nd in career SLG, OPS, Total Bases, 2B, HR, RBI, BB, XBH, Runs Created
  • 3rd in career Runs
  • 4th in career OBP, Hits

He’ll be an aging veteran, but one with a legacy that will never erode. Yadi will come out in front of the plate as he does, but I hope this time is different.

I hope the ovation rocks the stadium. I hope it really hits him, and everyone there, and the moment seems to linger on forever.

Fan bases and teams will never own players, but for a time, Albert Pujols was the greatest player in the game, and he was “ours.” And were were his.