ST. LOUIS -- What if, on the heels of a dismal June, when he hit .158 and failed to smash a home run in a month for only the second time in his career, Cardinals superstar slugger Albert Pujols had never found his picturesque swing?
What if Pujols had grown so frustrated over his lack of production that he had walked away from the game?
What if he had not experienced a decisive turning point and informed manager Oliver Marmol, hitting coach Jeff Albert and close friend and hitting guru Alex Cintron, “I think I figured something out” in early July?
What if Pujols hadn’t persevered through his early struggles and hung around long enough to turn back the clock with a stunning second-half spree that saw him hammer 18 home runs en route to finishing his career with 703?
What if he had just walked away?
As it was, he almost did.
As the Cardinals prepared to host the Phillies in the Wild Card Series, which begins with Game 1 at Busch Stadium on Friday (1 p.m. CT), Pujols revealed in a candid interview with MLB.com that, yes, he came close to not playing out a full season. It’s why, during his retirement ceremony last Sunday, he told the crowd that there were times he wondered what he was doing playing a 22nd MLB season.
When asked this week if he really felt that way, Pujols said: “No, I did, I swear I did. There were some times when I [asked] myself that, many times.”
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, was among those who knew that Pujols was contemplating retirement in June. Others were aware as well and have said they’ll speak about that inflection point in more detail once the season ends.
Said Mozeliak on Thursday: “We were aware that there were some difficult times, but we are so glad that he was able to marshal through it.”
Pujols acknowledged that the strong support staff around him talked him out of retiring midseason. Everyone knows what happened next. Pujols joined Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only players in AL/NL history with 700 career home runs.
“When you have good people around you and they are encouraging you and you realize that God has opened so many doors for you, man, it puts things back into perspective,” Pujols said. “I decided, ‘I’m going to stick with it!’ I knew sooner or later it was going to come and turn around for me, because it can’t be like it was all year long.”
That proved true as Pujols hit three home runs in July, eight in August, seven in September and two more in October. Not coincidentally, once Pujols took off, so did the Cardinals. From July 30 to Sept. 7, the Cards went 28-8 to move from four games down in the NL Central standings to 9 1/2 games ahead. During that pivotal stretch, Pujols crushed nine home runs and carried the Cardinals much the way he did during his first stint with the franchise from 2001-11.
Here’s how much of a lift Pujols provided his team with his long-ball binge: The Cardinals were 16-1 in the first 17 games when he homered and 4-0 when he had two long balls in the same game. Pujols went through one stretch in which seven of his 11 home runs either tied games or put the Cardinals into the lead.
“There’s no way we’re in this position without Albert going off,” said Marmol. “The evolution of [Pujols’ struggles and his period of thriving] was pretty cool, though. He did a good job of [trusting his work habits] because he easily could have gone the other way and continued to question that the results weren’t there, especially to the degree that he knows that he can contribute. But he trusted it. He made adjustments. And now we’re here talking about him carrying the offense for weeks at a time.”
Even now, nearly three weeks from the night he joined one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball history, Pujols gets emotional thinking about how his decision to play on culminated in one of his most vulnerable moments of his 22-year MLB career. He had cried several times after big wins, and he had been nearly broken years before by the knee and foot injuries that threatened to end his career. But never before had Pujols allowed his emotions to pour like he did in the dugout tunnel upon hitting his 700th home run.
“It did hit me really hard, because I had felt that weight to deliver for everyone,” Pujols said. “God has given me this talent and the joy for the game, and I was emotional because there were so many people supporting me and pushing me. They are people who love me and have always supported my career, and I wanted to do it for them. I don’t want to say ‘pressure’ because that word sounds brutal -- and I really wanted to do it for them.”
Only one other thing, Pujols said, would stir his emotions as strongly again. That, of course, would be the Cardinals winning another World Series title.
“It’s my last year and I want to go out with my best,” he said. "And my best is winning a championship.”