Baseball fans in St. Louis, often admittedly irrational people who tend to form opinions with their hearts instead of their heads, had seen a sad story like this play out before -- and within a few short weeks, their whispers morphed into grumbles.
Was Albert Pujols coming back to the Cardinals a good idea? One of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history isn’t going to embarrass himself, is he? How painful is this going to be to watch over 162 games? Will the Redbirds have to, gulp, waive him?
Those concerns/complaints came after Pujols stumbled early in the season, collecting just 23 hits in his first 116 at-bats (.198 average). May (.188 with two home runs) and June (.158 and homerless) were also particularly troublesome, causing some to wonder if this comeback story was headed for an unsightly ending.
What those doubters didn’t get to see was Pujols dripping with sweat some four hours prior to first pitch because he had already taken three rounds of batting practice. They didn’t see how he was rarely without a video tablet -- something he uses to study pitchers’ tendencies tirelessly. And they definitely didn’t fully understand the dogged determination that rests inside of Pujols, a motivation that still drives him to be great.
Now, on the heels of Pujols’ 63rd career multi-home run game, and an impressive stretch where he has conjured memories of when he was one of the best baseball players on the planet from 2001-11, the cries from fans, sports talk-radio callers and Twitter zealots have shifted dramatically.
Can’t Albert come back in 2023, stay in the role of lefty-bashing slugger and continue to club home runs? Doesn’t he want to come back and eclipse the 700 home run plateau? Why stop now when he’s hitting like it’s 2001 all over again?
Late Sunday, after Pujols demolished home runs 688 and 689 of his Hall of Fame-bound career to lift the Cardinals past the rival Brewers, he directly answered questions about a potential 2023 return. His answer had all the subtlety of his bat violently colliding with a baseball.
“Where I’ll be in 2023 is here … watching some of these guys play from the stands,” Pujols said, referring to a time when he’ll likely be sitting in the Busch Stadium crowd while surrounded by his children. “I really don’t think about [coming back]. This is it for me. … I’m going to take a little break.”
While so many sports legends before him struggled while on the last laps of their careers -- a slowed-by-age Willie Mays infamously struggling in the outfield; Michael Jordan failing to even reach the playoffs with the Wizards; Joe Montana going out as a Kansas City Chief instead of a 49er -- Pujols has done exactly what the Cardinals brought him back to do. He exited Sunday’s game owning left-handed pitching (.351 batting average, 1.048 OPS, six home runs and six doubles). Overall, since the All-Star break he’s hitting .389 with an outlandish 1.242 OPS with four home runs, three doubles and 10 RBIs.
Couldn’t Pujols stick around and do this again next season? That's not for manager Oliver Marmol to decide, he said.
“Can he? Yes, but that’s for him [to determine],” said Marmol, who, at 36, is six years younger than the superstar slugger. “But he’s doing exactly what we want -- beat up lefties.”
Pujols’ status as a true legend of the game has resulted in several opposing franchises -- some of whom he has tortured through the years -- honoring him with retirement gifts. Opposing players routinely wait for him around the batting cage to tell him how he was their favorite player and ask for a signed jersey or bat. And Pujols regularly has a stack of memorabilia and/or baseballs at his dressing stall, awaiting his signature so adoring MLB contemporaries can hang onto a piece of him.
Could all this love and respect sway Pujols into coming back? Could the pursuit of 700 home runs lead him to playing again? How could it do that, he said, when he isn’t necessarily even pursing 700 as a goal?
“It is in the back of my mind … because I don’t think about it,” he said with a laugh. “If it happens, it happens, but I’m blessed with the career that I have and if God has that in store for my career, I’ll just be even more blessed. If it doesn’t happen, I think anybody would agree that I’ve had an amazing career and an amazing run.”
That amazing run will end when Pujols says so, and he isn’t likely to be swayed by sentiment or a big, round number in the record books. With the way he’s rallied from a slow start and how he’s turned the early whispers into more late-season Busch Stadium roars, he has already ensured this last run with the Cardinals will go down as a success. Are there more home runs left in that almost magical two-toned bat of his? Assuredly so, but he’s earned every right to call his own shots.
If he wants things to end after this season, he’ll make sure they do.
Cardinals fans -- some of whom doubted him early on and cheer him now -- shouldn’t be sad that this Pujols run is ending; they should simply feel honored that they’ve been witness to the journey.