ST. LOUIS -- The room had already filled for Albert Pujols’ scheduled press conference Friday afternoon when Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina snuck in and snaked his way to the back. A minute later, he pulled out his phone to FaceTime a friend.
“Hurry up,” Molina told Pujols. “We’re waiting for you.”
It was a sentiment shared by the city.
Nearly eight years after he last played in a Cardinals uniform, Pujols finally returned to the stadium that he once helped christen with championships, MVPs and majestic home runs. He hadn’t been back at Busch Stadium since he had departed a 2011 World Series champion.
That changed at 2:35 p.m. CT on Friday, when he walked through the security entrance not only to find the blinding lights of TV cameras awaiting, but also so many old friends. A few of them snuck into his press conference -- including former teammate Jim Edmonds, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt and all three Molina brothers -- while others peeked their heads out of offices or around corners to catch a glimpse or say thank you.
He stopped to hug security guards and Cardinals team doctors, broadcasters and front office staffers.
“It’s him!” one lady exclaimed as she cracked open the door to the stadium operations office.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Pujols said three hours before first pitch. “I’m pretty sure later on, when I take the field, it’ll be -- I’m not really an emotional guy, but I think it’s getting to me now. … Besides the two World Series that we accomplished together here in this organization, with the Cardinals, I think this is probably going to be right up there. This moment, this weekend.”
By the end of the night, there would be so many moments.
The first ovation from the second-largest crowd (48,423) in Busch Stadium III’s 14-year history came at 6:50, when Pujols emerged from the dugout to stretch. Cameras caught him grinning from ear to ear. He briefly choked up.
“That got me there, too, for a minute,” Pujols said after the Cardinals’ 5-1 win over the Angels. “The moment was pretty special.”
Minutes later, he jogged to center field, where several Cardinals players were waiting to meet him. With so much time passed since he last called St. Louis home, most had never met him before.
At 7:01, the Busch Stadium scoreboard began to play highlights of Pujols’ career with the Cardinals. It concluded with a standing ovation from the sellout crowd. Players from both teams lined the top of their respective dugouts to join in the applause.
“The pregame tribute was awesome,” Angels center fielder Mike Trout said after playing his first game in St. Louis. “Obviously, he's done a lot for St. Louis. I was looking at his numbers. If he would've retired after his 11 years here, he would've still been in the Hall of Fame. It's just pretty remarkable.”
Pujols moved into the on-deck circle at 7:23, waving to all the fans who pulled out their smartphones. Two minutes later, an entire stadium rose.
For about the next 80 seconds, the appreciation for Pujols’ lasting legacy in a baseball-crazed town hit its crescendo. Molina cleared the area around home plate to let the moment build. Thirty-three seconds in, Pujols doffed his helmet. Ten seconds later, he and Molina embraced. Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and team president Bill DeWitt III joined in the standing ovation.
The reception continued as Michael Wacha -- the player that the Cardinals chose with the compensation pick they received upon Pujols’ departure -- delivered a pitch. The applause didn’t end until center fielder Harrison Bader snagged Pujols’ 365-foot flyout to end the first inning.
“I can tell you that if it was up to these fans, they would have stood out there for three hours,” Pujols said. “Because that’s the appreciation they have, not just for me, but to everybody who has worn that uniform.”
The standing ovations recommenced each time he returned to the plate. During his fourth-inning plate appearance, fans chanted his name. They also booed Wacha after Pujols drew a four-pitch walk. Pujols later apologized to Wacha for the spotlight that he stole.
“I really didn’t think too much about it,” Wacha said. “It’s obviously well deserved, and he probably deserved about five more minutes of that ovation.”
The crowd, again on its feet, later seemed to will Pujols to first as he beat out an infield single to open the seventh. His 4.76-second home-to-first time was the fastest that Pujols had gotten down the first-base line in over four years, according to Statcast.
When he was lifted for a pinch-runner later in the frame, the crowd took one final opportunity to express its gratitude for all that Pujols had accomplished under the shadow of the Gateway Arch.
“I think the Cardinals did a really nice job paying tribute to Albert,” Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. “The fans, obviously, couldn’t have been better. I think when you think of baseball in St. Louis, some of the names that would pop up, Albert’s would be right there with them.”
St. Louis’ celebration of Pujols will extend into the weekend, as Ausmus confirmed that he plans to start Pujols in all three games of the series. Many of the fans who flocked back to see him dug up their old No. 5 jerseys to wear for the affair. It’s a number that has not been issued since Pujols’ departure and is unlikely ever to be again.
With so many requests for tickets, Pujols purchased three suites. His foundation filled another two Friday and has dispersed 400 tickets for Sunday’s series finale. Pujols’ return brought his former manager, Tony La Russa, and general manager, Walt Jocketty, to town, along with longtime teammate Chris Carpenter, who found Pujols as he was about to leave the stadium. The two embraced.
“Words can’t describe this night,” Pujols said. “Maybe a week from now, that’s when it’s really going to sink in.”
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.