Just two months shy of his 42nd birthday and a free agent after having completed with the Dodgers this past season his 10-year, $240 million Angels contract, Albert Pujols is living “a dream come true” in the Dominican Winter League with Leones del Escogido.
On Wednesday, the future Hall of Famer drove in the tying and winning runs with a double and single to help Escogido defeat the Gigantes del Cibao and even their record at 6-6. In fact, Pujols has driven in the winning run in two of Escogido’s six wins, delivering a walk-off infield single in his first game for the club a week and a half ago.
Pujols has accomplished more than most at the big league level in a 21-year career, with 679 home runs, 3,301 hits, three NL MVP awards, 10 All-Star appearances and two World Series rings. But now, for the first time, he’s getting a taste of professional baseball in his native country -- in the same stadium in Santo Domingo, Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal, where he used to sell sandwiches as a teenager at the games with his mother and stepfather.
“This is something that I’m always going to have, nice memories for my life,” Pujols said Wednesday in an interview published on Escogido’s YouTube channel.
Pujols was originally drafted in the Dominican League by the Gigantes in 2002, but never played until this fall, when his rights were traded to Escogido.
“For me, this is a dream come true," said Pujols. "I feel very comfortable with this organization, with these guys.”
Pujols isn’t exactly tearing up opposing pitching so far. He’s 6-for-30 in eight games (.200). But he has made an impact with the aforementioned walk-off hits and his general presence wearing No. 5, which is retired by Escogido but was graciously granted to him by former player, manager and GM of the club, Junior Noboa, who is currently the commissioner of baseball in the Dominican Republic and a longtime member of the D-backs’ organization after an eight-year playing career in the Majors.
“I’m trying to adjust to the league,” said Pujols, who hit .254/.299/.460 with 12 home runs after joining the Dodgers in May upon his release from the Angels. “This is not an easy league. It’s a league with a lot of prospects and guys who’ve played in the big leagues. And if not, they’re on a track to do so.
“It’s a question of getting to know the league. We have some scouting reports, but in the end, you’ve got to have that feeling at the plate.”
The Escogido Baseball Club, as it’s formally known, enjoys a rich tradition as one of two teams based in Santo Domingo, along with Tigres del Licey. Among the most notable names to suit up for the club are the Rojas Alou brothers -- Felipe, Mateo and Jesús -- along with Felipe’s son Moisés, Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and Sammy Sosa. Felipe also guided the team to four league titles as manager.
Moisés, who as GM led the club to two championships last decade, is still close to the organization and was on hand at Estadio Quisqueya on Wednesday.
“Mo has always been one of my favorite players,” Pujols said. “He was someone who helped me a lot when I was in St. Louis those early years, 2001, 2002, when he was on the Cubs [and Astros].”
Pujols’ family is not currently with him in the Dominican, but he’s anxious for them to join him and see what local baseball is about there.
“I hope they come to the games and really enjoy them, so they can see how baseball is played in the winter leagues,” said Pujols.