Pujols rose from obscurity to MLB legend

May 6th, 2021

The thing about Albert Pujols is that he fell out of the sky.

This is often forgotten about Pujols, who was DFA’d by the Angels on Thursday afternoon and, barring a team looking for a sentimental lift down the stretch, may have played his last game as a Major Leaguer.

We see all our superstars coming these days. I can tell you more about Wander Franco and Adley Rutschman, who haven’t played an MLB game yet, than I can about most of my children’s classmates; Vladimir Guerrero Jr. feels like he’s been a part of our lives forever, and he is 22 years old. There are fans who pay more attention to their teams’ prospects than they do their current rosters. We’re always looking toward the future.

But Albert Pujols had none of that. He was taken in the 13th round of the 1999 Draft, a Missouri community college kid who was thought to maybe be a little too pudgy to stick at third base, his position back then. Thanks to a contract dispute -- Pujols knew his worth, even if no one else yet did -- he didn’t play in the Minors until 2000, starting out in Class A Peoria, where he immediately just crushed the ball. The Cardinals were so impressed by him that they promoted him to Triple-A Memphis for the Pacific Coast League playoffs, where he arrived just in time to win the postseason MVP.

He was invited to Spring Training in 2001, which, because it was 2001 and there weren’t constant social media updates on every single prospect’s at-bat, was the first time most Cardinals fans had ever heard of him. And then he hit. And hit. And hit. Manager Tony LaRussa was skeptical that this kid was ready for the bigs, but Pujols, as TLR said, “kept acing every test.” When Bobby Bonilla, who was supposed to play third for the Cardinals in 2001, got hurt, the door was open to Pujols. Albert was in the starting lineup on Opening Day that year. No one yet even knew how to pronounce his name.

You know what happened after that. He was, immediately, Ted Williams: He was The Machine. He was more than just a hitter, though. His style of play, his quiet, commanding grace, reminded Cardinals fans of their patron saint, Stan Musial, The Man, giving him his real nickname: El Hombre.

Pujols would win the Rookie of the Year Award in 2001 and finish fourth in the NL MVP voting: He wouldn’t finish out of the top 10 any of his 11 years in St. Louis, and he won the award three times. (Had it not been for Barry Bonds, Pujols would have won more.) He was a perfect fit with La Russa, who shared his intense competitiveness: La Russa gave Pujols that whatever-it-takes-to-win edge, and Pujols gave him the superstar to replace, and then far surpass, Mark McGwire.

To watch the Pujols of yesteryear was to be perpetually blown away. He was a player of nuance -- he had a great way of signaling to Yadier Molina that the runner at first base was too far off that was imperceptible to everyone else -- but he was also a player of big, dramatic moments. I’m telling you, there were times when Pujols was at the plate that you just knew he was going to hit a home run … and then he did.

You might not believe me when I say that. In today’s baseball, that sounds like the sort of Mickey-Mantle-Hit-600-Foot-Homers-While-Dead-Lifting-Ovaltine! stories your grandparents told you. But I was there. I’m telling you it was true.

I’ve written before about how you can tell the story of Albert Pujols in 10 at-bats, but it’s impossible not to think of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, which had enough drama to last several thousand years but, at the time, the biggest ongoing subplot was: Would this current at-bat be Albert’s last as a Cardinal?

That extended into the ninth inning, when Pujols, two outs away from elimination, doubled to keep the game alive. Three batters later, he was scoring on David Freese’s triple.

He had already received two standing ovations at that point. Think about that. In the middle of a close, tight elimination game in the World Series, Cardinals fans stopped to give a standing O to Albert Pujols, to show how much he had meant to them, even though the Cardinals were still in the game, even though no one knew if he was actually, in fact, leaving.

That’s what watching Albert in his prime was like. You just wanted to show him how grateful you were.

Pujols did leave, it turned out, and while his contributions in Anaheim should not be forgotten or overlooked -- he hit 222 homers there and was a central figure of the only Mike Trout team to make the playoffs thus far -- he’ll be remembered as a Cardinal forever.

So much so, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if there still isn’t some value in Pujols, putting on that No. 5, one last time, for a team that isn’t counting on him, for a veteran team that could use a bench bat, for a fanbase that would give him the sendoff he deserves as much as anyone in the sport.

Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t. But no matter what happened in Anaheim: He’ll forever be a hero in St. Louis. How could he not be?

And remember: He came from nowhere. The world is a scary, unpredictable place, full of monsters with claws that will bite you. You never know what’s coming around the corner. Sometimes pianos fall from the sky.

But sometimes? Sometimes? Sometimes it’s Ted Williams who falls from the sky. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you’re graced with an incredible gift, the greatest one of all.

No one knew Albert Pujols was coming. It made you never want to let him go. Whether this is the end or not … it should never, ever be forgotten.