ANAHEIM -- Jose Oquendo was the first one to come over. The longtime Cardinals third-base coach, and the person Albert Pujols often credits for making him a Gold Glove first baseman, emerged from the visitors' dugout at Angel Stadium, made his way onto the blue tarp that surrounds the home-plate area during batting practice, and gave his former pupil a hug.
Shortly after that came a warm embrace from Adam Wainwright, some jabs from Jake Westbrook, and soon Pujols was hosting a small gathering with Yadier Molina, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran, who essentially became Pujols' replacement in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup.
It was, even if for a few brief minutes, as if he had never left.
But, as you know, he has.
"I was telling Yadier yesterday, it's weird," Pujols said as the Cardinals visited Anaheim for the first time ever. "These are three days that I won't be able to root for them, because any time that I have an opportunity and I watch, I root for them. Some of them are my good friends."
Pujols was an icon during his 11 years in St. Louis, posting a .328/.420/.617 slash line, belting 445 home runs, winning three National League Most Valuable Player Awards and leading the franchise to two World Series titles. On Dec. 8, 2011, he officially closed that chapter in his life, signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels.
Asked if he has any regrets over his time in St. Louis, Pujols said: "I don't really want to open those doors."
"I think we need to talk about our organization," he added. "I'm an Angel now, we're playing really good over the last week or so, and I think my main focus is that, to think about what I can try to do today to help this ballclub win and not to open those doors of what happened two years ago. Because that's over. There's nothing I can do to flip the page and go back. I just need to move forward. They moved forward, and I moved forward."
The Cardinals moved forward in a way few would've expected, being one win away from a World Series appearance last season and arriving to Orange County 17 games over .500 as the NL Wild Card leaders -- all without Pujols or iconic manager Tony La Russa.
The Angels, meanwhile, are four games below .500 and nine games out of first despite a six-game winning streak. And Pujols entered batting .249 with a .752 OPS, still hindered by the plantar fasciitis on his left foot and the soreness of his surgically repaired right knee.
"I just think it's a tough game," said Mike Matheny, the Cardinals' manager and Pujols' former teammate. "People go through stretches where the game is difficult for anybody. There were a number of times where he had years of .300/30/100 and everybody at the end of April thought the sky was falling because he was hitting .240. It's a tough game, but he has made a career out of being pretty consistent and very mentally tough."
At 7:21 p.m. PT, Pujols -- serving as the designated hitter for the 50th time in 81 games -- strolled to the batter's box with a generous applause from his current fans, who are still patiently waiting to see the same Pujols from St. Louis.
"I'm going to do my routine," Pujols said of coming to the plate with Molina crouching behind it. Then he paused, and jokingly recalled a St. Louis moment he'll never forget -- when a brawl ensued at Great American Ball Park after Brandon Phillips tapped the shins of the longtime Cardinals catcher.
"I'm probably going to hit the umpire [with the tip of my bat] and I'm going to hit [Molina] on the shin," Pujols added. "Hopefully he tells me not to do it and maybe we can start a fight."
Instead, Molina gave his buddy a gentle tap on the helmet.