Pujols' final run nets storybook ending to legendary career

October 10th, 2022

Albert Pujols has made it clear, again and again, that this really is it. We saw his last Major League at-bat on Saturday night at Busch Stadium, when the Cardinals were eliminated in Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series.

And while the game will miss him -- and Cardinals fans will miss him more -- that’s actually a beautiful thing. Not for our sake. For his. He got an opportunity that almost no one ever gets -- the chance to write his own ending, scarcely a year after it seemed that a cruel fate would be written for him.

Never mind whether it was a happy ending -- though by just about any measure, it was. Just getting to make the call is a rare gift that was bestowed upon a rare player.

This has nothing to do with “legacy” or any of the selfish notions that we apply to athletes from afar. Too often, fans don’t want to watch a player fall short of what he once was, and they say he “should” retire. But it’s the player’s life, his career -- not ours. And it’s up to him to say when he’s ready to stop putting in the time, effort and pain.

The problem is that most of the time, the game makes that call, not the player. This time, it was flipped. And the change happened in the span of about 16 months.

Pujols’ longtime teammate Adam Wainwright has talked very directly about the fact that it’s much more common for the game to tell you that you’re done with it, rather than the other way around. And for years, it appeared that would be the case with Pujols in Anaheim. From 2017-20, he scuffled through four full seasons as a player who looked nothing like one of the greatest ever to play.

In 2021, it got even worse. Pujols was released in May, before he even got the chance to finish his historic 10-year contract with the Angels. But it was upon his release that things started to change. He seemed to have an extra spring in his step during a late-season run with the Dodgers, and he decided to give it one last go at the place where it all started.

To call that last go “magic” would not be too much of an overstatement. Pujols posted his highest batting average since 2014, his highest on-base percentage since '11 and his highest slugging percentage since '10. He lit up the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. He powered the Cardinals’ surge to the NL Central title. Aside from winning another ring, there’s simply nothing else he could have asked for.

And even that doesn't tell the whole story, because as he told MLB.com last week, when he scuffled through a rough patch in June, he considered hanging it up before the season ended. He didn’t, though, and we should all be grateful for that. Down the stretch, Pujols hit with authority. He maybe didn’t run the bases or play the field like the MVP from his first tenure in St. Louis, but his second-half slash line? 

Try .323/.388/.715 and a 1.103 OPS -- numbers that would not have looked out of place during that dominant run.

And so, in hanging it up now, Pujols accepts an enormous gift: to go out on top, to leave with good feelings. And to be beloved, revered and celebrated at the same time. It’s been a long time since any great player got to enjoy all of that. Mariano Rivera got to. David Ortiz. But it’s a short list.

And neither of them came quite so face to face with an involuntary end, the way Pujols did. He should treasure it, and so should we.