JUPITER, Fla. -- When Albert Pujols first returned to Busch Stadium in 2019 as a member of the Angels, he said he didn’t have a clue how he would be received by fans who had revered him for 11 years as a Cardinal. Ultimately, he was given a rousing ovation, and he even received a curtain call a day later when he homered as the opposition.
Pujols probably knows what the reaction will be from Cardinals fans overjoyed he is back playing for the franchise where he won two World Series titles and three NL MVP Awards. On the one hand, he can’t wait to get to get to Opening Day and begin what will be the beginning of the end of a Hall of Fame-worthy career. On the other hand, Pujols said he doesn’t want to anticipate what the reaction will be from fans -- much like back in 2019 -- and he’d rather let the moment play out organically and savor every drop.
“I’m the type who doesn’t like to think about what’s coming and I try to let it happen,” said Pujols, who might someday have a statue outside of Busch Stadium the same size as the monument to Stan Musial. “I don’t want to set expectations because I like to be surprised, so I’m just going to enjoy it. I’m sure it will be emotional for me -- and the fans, too. But my focus is on trying to get in the reps I need to get myself ready for this season.”
What a season it figures to be with the 42-year-old Pujols, and his closest friend in baseball, catcher Yadier Molina, both having declared this will be their last year. Adam Wainwright, another link to championships from 2006 and ’11, has also flirted with the idea of retirement. Another championship, Pujols said as if he were dreaming out loud, might be the perfect capper for the Cardinals' three franchise fixtures.
“Me and those two guys are the last ones still here, and it’s special to have them with me as I’m finishing my career,” Pujols said. “Hopefully we’ll get one more run at a title. That would make it so perfect.”
Know this about Pujols’ return to St. Louis: It is far more than a ceremonial last lap for a player looking for one final hurrah. The player the Cardinals have seen in camp thus far has been a Pujols who is trimmed down, as strong as ever and still capable of thriving in big moments. While no longer playing at first base, he still brings an imposing presence to the DH spot or when he’s used as a pinch-hitter in high-leverage situations. Ranking fifth all time in home runs (679), third in RBIs (2,150), fourth in extra-base hits (1,367) and fourth in total bases (6,042) is one thing, but knowing he hit .294 with 13 home runs off left-handed pitching and .378 with two more homers as a pinch-hitter last season is another.
“This guy is definitely dialed in,” said Cardinals rookie manager Oli Marmol, who has known Pujols for 15 years. “He’s on a mission to finish well. He’s in shape, he’s feeling well and with his timing, every time he gets an at-bat, he feels better. From a mental and physical standpoint, he’s ready to go.”
That’s the same thing Wainwright determined -- both last season when Pujols faced him as a Dodger and this spring in their matchups in intrasquad scrimmages. Wainwright said people putting the nostalgia tag on Pujols’ return should do so at their own peril because of the magic the slugger can still conjure with that two-tone bat in his massive hands.
“Any time Albert is motivated, it’s a very dangerous thing,” Wainwright said. “He’s motivated to show people that he’s not too old or over the hill. I don’t think he wants this to be nostalgic; he wants to go out and prove something.”
Quite the opposite, Pujols said. Sure, he needs 21 home runs for 700, 64 RBIs to pass Babe Ruth, 92 total bases to move beyond Musial and 18 hits to surge into the top 10, but his goals are much bigger than stats he’s always seen as somewhat hollow. The number he cares most about -- even more than 700 dingers-- is three, as in how many World Series championships he could have if the Cardinals can make another deep playoff run. Undoubtedly, that would result in even more love from a fanbase that never stopped cheering for Pujols regardless of what uniform he was wearing.
“I don’t need to show anybody anything or prove anything,” he said. “For me, it’s just about enjoying this season and helping us win. Numbers-wise, if 700 is meant to be and it happens, it will be special. But I don’t want to be chasing anything. I want to stay focused and when my name is written in that lineup, I want to do everything I can to help the club win.”