Albert Pujols' career in full ... in 10 at-bats
Albert Pujols has come to the plate more than 13,000 times in his career, a number that is underappreciated: He's sixth in AL/NL history in all-time plate appearances. That is no small thing: Among all the humans to live on this planet, he experienced the fundamental dream of generations of Americans, to take an at-bat in a Major League game, more than almost any other soul.
As the most decorated foreign-born position player in the sport’s history, Pujols became the first Latino player to reach the exclusive 700-homer club, and fourth overall, on Friday.
How do you tell the story of Albert Pujols? It requires more words than I might possibly have at my disposal. But those at-bats? Can you tell the story of Albert Pujols in 10 at-bats? The plate seems the ideal place to start. Here are the 10 most indicative at-bats of Albert Pujols.
1. April 9, 2001: His first homer at Busch Stadium. Pujols, who famously had fought his way onto the Opening Day roster in part because of an injury to Bobby Bonilla, of all people, had already homered in the six-game road trip that began the 2001 season, and he came into the Cardinals’ home opener hitting .348. But he hadn’t yet been a part of the parade and pomp of 50,000 red-clad fans and stomping Clydesdales yet. He was batting seventh, between Ray Lankford and Mike Matheny (with Jim Edmonds, Mark McGwire and Bonilla all ahead of him in the lineup), and playing third base. In the bottom of the second, with Lankford on first and a 1-2 count in his first at-bat at Busch, Pujols launched a Denny Neagle changeup into the left-field stands. He went on to hit 213 more in St. Louis. That one let you know what was coming ... and what was already here.
2. Sept. 21, 2001: The first clutch homer … and the first Stan The Man moment. One advantage that Pujols has had throughout his time in St. Louis -- an advantage he of course has contributed to -- is that his teams were always in contention. They only finished under .500 once in his 11 years there, and he reached the postseason seven times (plus once more each with the Angels and Dodgers) with St. Louis on the verge of clinching another postseason berth this year. In a key game in Pittsburgh in the midst of a tight pennant chase with the Houston Astros (a team the Cards would end up battling constantly for the next half-decade), Pujols came to the plate against former Cardinal Omar Olivares, with the bases loaded and the game tied at 5 in the ninth. You can probably guess what happened next: a grand slam, the first of his career. It was nearly 59 years to the day that a 21-year-old Stan Musial -- the greatest Cardinal of all time and one who had a personal connection with Pujols -- hit a grand slam in Pittsburgh that sent the Cardinals to the 1942 World Series. The two men would remain friends until Musial died, and they will surely be compared by Cardinals fans until the end of time.
3. July 20, 2004: The Wrigley Game. Pujols played too many games against the hated Cubs at Wrigley Field, during an era when the Cubs were quite good, not to have his fair share of Wrigley moments. None were bigger than this game, with this team (probably the best team Pujols has ever played on), when the Cardinals fell behind, 7-1, but fought all the way back to tie it 8-8 (thanks in part to two Pujols homers). Facing LaTroy Hawkins in the ninth, Pujols launched his third homer of the game, and the Cardinals had their comeback. And Pujols had the game every Cardinals fan will think of when they go to Wrigley, forever.
4. July 15, 2005: A personal memory. The thing about Pujols is that he provided so many incredible memories for so many Cardinals fans that some immortal ones can get lost. So let me memorialize this one. My grandmother, Mary Dooley, was as diehard a Cardinals fan who has ever lived on this Earth, but in 2005, at the age of 81, she was becoming increasingly frail and ill. But on Friday, July 15, 2005, she was having a great day. She was living with my parents at the time, and they had a nice dinner out, she took the dogs for a walk and then she sat down in the basement with my father, her son-in-law, to watch the Cardinals game. She was feeling great, it was such a good day, so she decided to have a beer with Bryan and watch the Birds. She stayed up all the way to the end, deep into extra innings, when Pujols homered in the bottom of the 13th off Chad Harville to give the Cardinals a walk-off victory. She then high-fived and said goodnight to Bryan, went to bed and died in her sleep. Her last memory was of Pujols, a player she absolutely adored, hitting a home run to win a game, like he had done so many times. You cannot tell Pujols’ story without talking about how much Cardinals fans truly loved him. I’m honored to have my late grandmother represent those fans, and that love.
5. Oct. 17, 2005: The Lidge homer. In the popular imagination, this soul-crushing homer ended the career of Brad Lidge and the Astros’ season. Neither happened: The Astros won the very next game (the last game ever at the old Busch Stadium) to go to the World Series, and Lidge would close out the Phillies' championship just three years later. Everyone turned out just fine. But it sure didn’t feel that way at the time, did it?
6. Oct. 22, 2011: The third World Series homer. Heading into Game 3 of the 2011 World Series, Pujols’ World Series numbers, in 2004 and '06, as well as the first two games of '11, were far below his career numbers: He had struggled more than you’d think, and he’d certainly never had his World Series moment. And then ... Game 3. The first two homers put the Cards in position to have the Series lead. The third one, off former Cardinal Darren Oliver, gave him That Moment. It didn’t decide the game. It wasn’t particularly clutch. But it was pure Pujols dominance.
7. Oct. 27, 2011: His 'final' at-bat in St. Louis. Of all the madness of 2011 World Series Game 6, one aspect often forgotten is how many different times Cardinals fans thought they were saying goodbye to Pujols. On the eve of his free agency, Pujols received two different standing ovations with the Cardinals behind, none more poignant than the one in the bottom of the ninth, with the Cardinals down two runs, with one out, and Pujols seemingly about to say goodbye. Then Pujols did what Pujols does: He put the Cardinals in position to win with a double that would start all the madness that would end with David Freese’s infamous triple. Pujols would be up again that game, this time with two outs in the 10th, but he was intentionally walked before Lance Berkman’s equally massive hit. It turned out they’d end up seeing him again the next night.
8. May 4, 2018: His 3,000th hit. Pujols passed Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time home run list, and his success as a slugger will always be remembered. But Pujols, at his best, was a line-drive, base-hit machine, with far more in common with Tony Gwynn than, say, Dave Kingman. So his 3,000th hit has always felt more indicative of what kind of the hitter he was. He could beat you any way necessary. Even with a broken-bat single.
9. June 22, 2019: The Angels homer at Busch. It was a scheduling quirk that kept Pujols away from Busch Stadium for seven years after joining the Angels, but when he returned, he was greeted like a long-lost son. All the bad feelings of his exit were erased, and when he launched the homer into the left-field seats, the Cardinals and Pujols had their closure … and the fans had their hero back.
10. Sept. 23, 2022: His 700th homer. Most Cardinals fans would have been perfectly happy -- after Pujols signed before the 2022 season -- simply to see him wearing the uniform again and maybe starting a game or two every homestand: He could have hit .198 and slugged .372 -- his numbers with the Angels when they released him last year -- and still received regular standing ovations. But that’s not what Pujols did in his final season. Instead, at the age of 42, wearing a Cardinals uniform with a number no Cardinals player will wear again, he had his best year since … well, since he left St. Louis after winning the 2011 World Series.
His incredible final season -- in which he was a main reason the Cardinals are looking to clinch their first NL Central title in three seasons and, for the final two months of the year, was one of the best hitters in baseball -- culminated in a two-homer game at Dodger Stadium, with No. 700 off Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford adding Pujols to a list that includes only three other humans. Pujols celebrated not just with his teammates, but in the stands with likely Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre, whose record for most hits by a player not born in the United States Pujols broke three years ago. It was a magical moment, but also a result of a torrid run to end a career unlike nearly any we have seen. This is how everyone dreams of their finishing kick. Pujols, as always, made those dreams come true.