ST. LOUIS -- Baseball players, as a group, can occasionally be hardened by the sometimes cruel nature of the game they play and come off as bitter, jaded and unimpressed with the athletic exploits that they see.
However, when it comes to the continually growing legend of slugger Albert Pujols, teammates and others around the game are almost instantly turned into fans, and their praise is downright syrupy sweet.
Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson, who grew up idolizing Pujols, said he’ll someday tell his theoretical kids and grandkids that his dressing stall was six spots down from arguably the greatest right-handed hitter in history. Teammates of rookie Juan Yepez make fun of him for following Pujols around like a lost puppy dog, and he couldn’t care less. Miles Mikolas marvels daily at what Pujols does, and then he’s hit with the shocking realization that the all-time great has been functioning at this level since Mikolas was in grade school.
“You’ve got guys in the dugout getting goosebumps. It’s such a special career, and to see him keep doing it, it’s incredible,” said Mikolas after Pujols hit career regular-season home runs Nos. 688 and 689 on Sunday in the Cardinals’ 6-3 win over the rival Brewers at Busch Stadium, improving the team's record to 1 1/2 games above the Brewers at the top of the NL Central. “That’s how you get into the Hall of Fame. He doesn’t take anything for granted. Even in his last season, he’s always trying to get better. He’s not coasting into the Hall of Fame. He’s going to kick down that door and have a nice plaque up in there somewhere.”
Even now, at 42 years old and in his 22nd and final season, the future Hall of Famer gave reminders of his peak years Sunday when he registered the 63rd multi-home run game of his career, tying Willie Mays for fifth most all time. His solo home run in the second jarred the Cardinals offense out of a slumber, and his three-run homer in the eighth inning provided the cushion for St. Louis’ first series victory over Milwaukee of the season.
The second home run was so majestic, so vintage Albert Pujols, that Brewers catcher Victor Caratini’s head dropped into his hands upon contact and veteran left fielder Andrew McCutchen never took a step as the Statcast-projected 443-foot blast sailed high over his head and up into the Busch Stadium stands.
Those kinds of stirring moments -- one that led Pujols to imitate the Superman shirt pull as he left the box and the crowd of 44,142 demanded a curtain call -- don’t happen as often for the legendary slugger. But the fact that they are still happening at all -- it was his first two-homer game at Busch Stadium since June 4, 2011 -- makes it at least a little surprising to Pujols. Right, Albert? Not a chance, he said with conviction.
“No, this is what I expect of myself,” said Pujols, who reached double digits in home runs for the 21st time in his career to tie Cardinal great Stan Musial and Barry Bonds for third all time. “I’m telling you, I feel like I can still play this game, and if I couldn’t, I wouldn’t still be here. When you put in the work and with the blessing of the Lord, you’re going to have success, and that’s what I’m feeling.”
Pujols’ father, Bienvenido Pujols, idolized Mays when the slick-fielding center fielder was in the process of racking up 660 home runs, 24 All-Star Game appearances and two NL MVPs. Accomplish something that Mays did, Pujols’ father would always tell him, and then he would have done something great. Pujols has said repeatedly this season that his statistical accomplishments matter little to him, but the mere mention of him tying Mays with 63 multi-home run games brought a brief rush of emotion to his face.
“Any time you put yourself in the same sentence with Willie Mays, it’s amazing,” Pujols said. “What he did in this game, it’s pretty awesome. But, for me, those are the things I’ll look at when I sit down and look at the numbers. And I’ll probably say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome.’”
While Pujols isn’t always comfortable gushing about his accomplishments, others around him turn to mush when discussing his greatness.
Said Yadier Molina, Pujols’ closest friend in baseball who threw water in the slugger’s face during an on-field TV interview: “This is something he’s always done, and he’s still able to do it. I’m not surprised.”
Added Carlson: “He was one of my favorite players growing up as a kid, and for him to be my teammate now and pass along his experiences to me, it’s something I really cherish. … He’s a legend.”