'22 or no, Pujols' legacy has few equals

October 24th, 2021

You just knew. That was the thing. You knew even before he came to bat. It could be the 10th inning, and would be slated to hit in the 11th, and you still knew he was ending the game.

If Pujols is done, that should be his legacy as much as anything. He’d certainly rather be known for ending games -- winning games -- than just about anything else. And few hitters have ever done it as well or as often.

Of course, you could also just call him the greatest right-handed hitter since Hank Aaron, and you’d be right. But to really appreciate the hitter that Pujols has been, you need to understand that he was automatic. He was going to beat you. It was just a matter of when and how.

Pujols, who was standing in the on-deck circle when AJ Pollock grounded out to end the Dodgers' season with a 4-2 loss to the Braves in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday at Truist Park, may not be done, of course. His solid showing down the stretch for the Dodgers may have opened some doors for him to play in 2022 if he wishes. But as of now, he’s unsigned, and it’s no guarantee that one of the greatest players any of us has ever seen will play again.

Regardless, his legacy is unassailable. He’s the Majors’ active leader in home runs, RBIs, hits, doubles and walks. He’s a three-time NL MVP, and there are certainly people in St. Louis who would tell you he should have a couple more.

He’s a two-time Gold Glover, and that brings up the other thing that really should not be forgotten. Pujols was a complete player. He was an exemplary defender at first base, a heady and aggressive baserunner, and a high-average, high-OBP hitter who also happened to hit homers by the bushel.

Hitting is hard for everyone. It was hard for Pujols even at his best. But he made it look easy. His quiet stance, his laser focus and his immaculate pitch selection all added up to a hitter who never looked like he struggled. Brush him back, and you were going to regret it. He exemplified getting even rather than getting mad. You couldn’t tilt him.

It didn’t even look hard for him as a rookie. He sprung fully formed as a star in 2001, forcing his way onto the Cardinals’ roster with a brilliant spring and then torching the NL for six months.

This from a hitter who had begun the previous year at Low-A. Don’t forget that part of the story, either. He was a 13th-round Draft pick out of a Kansas City-area junior college. He spent three-fourths of a season in Low-A, took 81 at-bats at High-A, moved to Triple-A for three regular-season games and a playoff run, and boom. A few months later, he was posting one of the greatest rookie seasons in history.

That began a sustained run the likes of which has rarely been seen. From 2001-10, Pujols posted a slash line of .331/.426/.624. He hit 408 home runs in that span. He could have been elected to the Hall of Fame if he’d hung it up the day he reached the minimum required service time of 10 years.

By the time he left St. Louis after 2011, his name was all over the Cardinals’ record book, ranking second only to Stan Musial in home runs, doubles, total bases, walks, RBIs and extra-base hits. He also had helped bring two rings and restore glory to a proud franchise that had, by its own standards, spent much of the previous decade wandering the wilderness a bit.

The second half of his career obviously didn’t reach the heights of the first, but Pujols was a well-above-average hitter, a dangerous hitter, well into his mid-30s. And even to the end, he has been one of the game’s smartest players, a revered teammate and an unmistakable presence.

If it is over, all of us as baseball fans should just say thank you. It has been a privilege to watch Albert Pujols hit, and to play baseball. The game is better for his having played it, and there’s no better legacy than that.