Pujols returns to Cardinals for final season

March 28th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- While Albert Pujols confirmed this will be the last season of his unquestioned Hall of Fame career -- and it will come, fittingly enough, with the same Cardinals organization where it started and where he enjoyed his greatest success -- he also insisted that this isn’t just some ceremonial, nostalgic tour complete with a sappy, Hollywood-type ending.

No, Pujols is back in Cardinals red to try to be one of the game’s most-feared sluggers, and he’s here to help St. Louis push for another World Series championship, he said repeatedly on Monday after rejoining his former team on a one-year deal. Terms of the deal were not announced, but it's worth $2.5 million, a source told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand.

Time will tell whether the 42-year-old Pujols can summon the same sort of magic he had during his previous run with the Cardinals from 2001-11 when he produced two championships, three MVP awards and a 10-year streak of hitting at least .300 and smashing 30 or more home runs. That, Pujols said with the steely glare and driven mindset that became synonymous during his first run in St. Louis, is the only thing he hopes to get out of this final run in the jersey that features the birds on the bat. 

“For me, I think I’m here for a reason,” said Pujols, who earlier in the day emerged from beyond the right-field fence at Roger Dean Stadium and walked down the foul line to join his Cardinals teammates in the dugout in their 2-1 loss to the Astros. “They believe I can still play this game and they believe I can help this organization win a championship. And myself, I believe in that, too.” 

Pujols -- arguably one of the greatest players in the rich history of the Cardinals, right alongside of Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith -- rejoins the franchise at a time when catcher Yadier Molina is entering his 19th and final season, and pitcher Adam Wainwright could be about to exit as well. Wainwright, who allowed two runs on four hits in five innings on Monday, believes Pujols will be on a mission to show he has plenty left in the tank as a hitter.

“He seems like he’s in good shape, and he’s motivated,” said Wainwright, who noted that Pujols woke him up from his pregame nap on Monday with a “bear hug.” 

“Any time Albert is motivated, it’s a very, very dangerous thing,” Wainwright said. “He’s motivated to show people that he’s not too old or over the hill. I don’t think he wants this to be nostalgic; he wants to go out and prove something. That chip is a good one to put on your shoulder. It’s cool to be loved, that’s a nice thing, and nobody is more beloved than he is. But he wants to prove himself.” 

Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. saw an immediate response from the addition of Pujols -- he spotted a fan wearing a No. 5 jersey when he pulled into the team’s headquarters Monday morning. DeWitt Jr. called the signing “the highlight of the spring.”

Pujols enters the season 21 home runs shy of 700 -- with much of that damage coming from his historic run with the Cardinals for 11 seasons. He hit .328 and clubbed 445 home runs with the Redbirds, was named an All-Star nine times and won the Gold Glove Award twice. 

Pujols, who left St. Louis in 2011 to sign a 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract with the Angels, had emotional returns to St. Louis in recent years while playing for Anaheim and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He said the numerous standing ovations he received from Cardinals fans -- both before and after homering off current Cardinal Dakota Hudson in 2019 and J.A. Happ last season -- allowed him to dream again about possibly returning to St. Louis to cap his career. 

“There was always hope, so you never close the door,” Pujols said. “The organization never closed the door on me, and I never closed the door, either. It’s a great opportunity. Everything always happens on God’s time, and it’s the perfect time right now. I’m back here and I’m really excited.”

Wainwright, Pujols’ teammate in St. Louis from 2005-11, said the home runs at Busch Stadium in recent years put him in a rather awkward position. On one hand, he wanted to be supportive of his fellow Cardinals pitchers, but he was also plenty happy for his close friend.

“We never had any hard feelings,” said Wainwright, who admitted that he lobbied management in recent days to re-sign Pujols. “It seemed like with the fans, a lot of time had passed, and it seemed like it was water under the bridge.

“They were glad to see him and when he hit that home run, it was just the most Albert thing ever. Dakota is pitching, and he’s throwing bowling ball sinkers and Albert lifts one. In the dugout, I was trying not to smile. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my teammate just gave up a home run, but this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen; this really stinks for Dakota, but it’s really cool for Albert.’ I didn’t know what to do. But that was so Albert.”

As if he needed any extra motivation, Pujols said knowing this will be his final season will drive him to finish in style -- hopefully with a World Series trophy lifted over his head.

“This is it for me, this is my last run,” Pujols said candidly. “Those guys, [Molina and Wainwright], had a big influence on me, and we have great history together. Now, we want to add to our history. Hopefully, we can do it this year and raise that championship trophy. If we can do that, it would be really special for us.”