Chatting with a legend on the road to 700

September 22nd, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SAN DIEGO -- Through my most enjoyable moments of this 2022 season, many of them have been the instances when Cardinals living legend Albert Pujols would give me a few minutes before games to talk hitting, home runs and history.

Imagine that: Someone who wore No. 5 in Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball but couldn’t hit a curveball talking homers with someone who also wears No. 5 and is arguably the greatest right-handed hitter in the history of the game.

For this edition of the Cardinals Beat newsletter, it’s all Albert, all the time. And rightly so, considering how he stands on the doorstep of history with 698 home runs. Pujols is just two home runs shy of becoming just the fourth player in NL/AL history with 700 home runs.

Early in the season, while in Milwaukee, Pujols patiently explained to me the evolution of his swing over 22 MLB seasons. He discussed how he went from his wide-based, no-step stance in St. Louis to one with an adopted leg kick to compensate for injuries and generate more power from his lower half.

In Atlanta in July -- oddly enough, about the time his season turned from "meh" to magical and sparked a run that would draw him close to 700 home runs -- Pujols explained that while he’s having the time of his life in this final season, he needed a more serious-minded approach early in his career.

Deep down, the 42-year-old Pujols said he wishes he had been as playful and carefree as friends David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera and Adam Wainwright and enjoyed the journey a little more. Then again, Pujols stressed, changing his persona would have resulted in him not being true to himself, and he might not have ever become an all-time legend without the seriousness he approached the game with while posting historic numbers.

In between, we talked about raising teenaged children, plantar fasciitis pain and home runs -- lots about home runs. Pujols regaled me with stories of learning baserunning from Lou Brock, fielding ground balls alongside Ozzie Smith and how Stan “The Man” Musial would tease him about using “a toothpick” for a bat because of how small and light it was. He spoke of how Tony La Russa used to yell at him for not swinging at more first pitches even though 89 of his home runs have come when he ambushed pitchers on their first offerings.

Here are some of the question-and-answer highlights spliced together from some of the talks I’ve had with No. 5 this season. If you could go back and talk to that fresh-faced, clean-cut kid who broke into the Majors in 2001, what would you tell him?

Pujols: I would tell him that you are going to be so blessed with the career that you’re about to have. I don’t regret anything about my career. It’s been a great journey, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. Now, my focus is just on finishing strong. What a blessing it’s been to come back here [to St. Louis] and enjoy what I am doing.

I’ve accomplished so much more than I ever would have thought I’d accomplish in baseball and in life. All the glory goes to the Lord for giving me this opportunity to play baseball every day.

Every time the camera catches you in the dugout or when a young player from another team approaches, you seem to be laughing and having the time of your life. You’ve talked about how you didn’t always allow yourself to do that in the past because of your serious-minded approach. How much fun has this season been for you?

Everybody in this game has different mentalities and characteristics. Me, I was very serious and I didn’t ever really play around, and the media probably read me wrong in the past as always being in a bad mood. No, I wasn’t [always in a bad mood]; this was my job, and I took it seriously.

I always use this example -- If I have a business and I show up late, what message am I sending to my employees? So, I was always the type to show up early, put in the work and show respect for all that I have been given. That’s what I had to do and that’s how I had to approach it. David [Ortiz] liked to laugh more -- and Miguel Cabrera was the same way -- and that allowed them to focus and grow their careers the way they did. Me, I went about it differently.

You were mostly overlooked by scouts and baseball executives in high school and junior college, and you had to play your way through the Minor Leagues and onto the Cardinals' roster. Was there ever a point where you felt like you had made it? After your first home run? After your 50th home run? The 100th?

I didn’t ever really feel that way, because for me, it was never about hitting homers. For me, it was always about having quality at-bats, hitting .300 and driving in 100 runs. That always meant more to me. I developed that skill of being able to drive balls out of the ballpark by taking good at-bats. It’s hard to drive balls out of the park in BP, so imagine how hard it is to do in games.

Every day, I focus on hitting good line drives and then if opportunities come to drive the ball out of the ballpark, I try do that by putting good swings on the ball. There’s never been an at-bat where I said to myself, "I’m going to try to hit this ball out of the ballpark." It’s so hard to do. That’s just not how I approach hitting.

You have always said that pressure doesn’t affect your mindset when you come up in a clutch spot. Is that any different when approaching a milestone moment, such as your 500th, 600th or 700th home runs?

The only one where I was nervous -- well, not nervous, but I just really wanted it to happen in Anaheim -- was No. 600. [The Angels] were about to go on the road for a week. I didn’t get to hit No. 500 in Anaheim -- it came in D.C. instead, which was still pretty special.

I really wanted to get No. 600 there in Anaheim. I wanted that one and the 3,000 hits for the fans in Anaheim. I missed it by one day and ended up [getting my 3,000th hit] in Seattle. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you accomplish those things because they are still really special.

You are asked all the time about home runs, but how about your 3,000th hit? After all, you are one of just four players in history with 3,000 hits and at least 600 home runs with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.

The 3,000 hit came off Mike Leake, somebody I had faced several times before when he was with Cincinnati, and I'd had a little bit of success against him before. I was in a good stretch and had a lot of hits leading up to that. In my first at-bat, I hit a laser and they caught it. Then, in my next at-bat, I hit a blooper and it fell in for my 3,000th hit. For 3,001, I hit another laser to [left] field, and I think I finished 2-for-[4] that night in Seattle.

Coming into that game, I knew it was going to happen, but it was just a matter of when. I wanted to accomplish that one in front of the fans in Anaheim, but going on the road maybe got me more relaxed. I think the pressure of wanting to do it so badly might have been getting to me. The next day, I was able to do it, and I just enjoyed it with the family and the friends who were there.