Appreciation goes both ways for Pujols, Cards

Former Cardinal back in St. Louis for first time since 2011 World Series

June 20th, 2019

The last time played a game at Busch Stadium, a stadium he hit the first Cardinals home run at, a stadium he won two MVP Awards playing in, a stadium that in many ways he helped to build, he was running off the field in joy after winning his second World Series in six seasons. What was particularly thrilling and strange about this was that, the night before, Cardinals fans had already said goodbye to him.

One of the many absurd aspects of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the “David Freese game” and what I’ll insist on my dying bed is the greatest baseball game ever played, is that on two separate occasions the collective fans in St. Louis gave Pujols a rousing but bittersweet ovation that acknowledged the possibility it was the last time they’d see him in a Cardinals uniform. The first time came in the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Cardinals down 7-4 with two outs; announcer Joe Buck even said on the broadcast that Cardinals fans “know this could be the last time they see him.” It happened again in the bottom of the ninth, down 7-5 with one out, with Pujols 0-for-10 since Game 3, before he doubled and began the most incredible of all rallies. Cardinals fans' love for Pujols was so powerful that facing elimination from the World Series, they gave him standing ovations, just in case they never got the opportunity to do it again. They ended up giving him one more the next night. But then again, they gave everyone one that night.

This weekend, Pujols returns to Busch Stadium for the first time since that World Series win in 2011 as a member of the Angels, and one can’t help but note that the timing on his return feels both awkward and perfect. When Pujols left, there were considerable hard feelings, on both sides. Pujols felt like the Cardinals had slighted the superstar by offering about a shorter contract but a higher annual average. The Cardinals and their fans felt like Pujols abandoned 11 years of near-reverential love from one of the most passionate fanbases in sports simply for more money and, perhaps the unkindest cut of all, a “services” contract that expanded 10 years after Pujols’ retirement and would tie him to the Angels, essentially, forever.

The services contract was seemingly a direct refutation of his Cardinals identity -- I’m gone, and I’m gone forever. Contrary to popular opinion, the Cardinals did want Pujols back, desperately. The wound left by his departure, even a year after the team had won the World Series in the most exciting fashion possible, was a raw one. He was El Hombre, "The Man," as if the Cardinals somehow got themselves another Stan Musial. He was supposed to be a Cardinal forever, like Stan. He’s leaving all that for money? With the Angels?

This would have made an immediate return to Busch, like, say, the one Bryce Harper made this offseason, an ugly one. Feelings were too urgent and recent for Cardinals fans to show Pujols the appreciation for his 11 years so soon. There would have been boos, there’s no question about it. Pujols needed to get settled into Los Angeles, and, more so, Cardinals fans needed some distance and perspective. Pujols deserved to be showered with affection for his 11 years in St. Louis. But no one in St. Louis was ready to do that in 2012.

Because of a scheduling quirk, it instead was 7 1/2 years between Pujols' visits to Busch. The time and distance have been clarifying, on both sides.

The Cardinals didn’t just say goodbye to Pujols after the 2011 season; they said goodbye to Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame manager who had been in charge for 16 seasons, including all of Pujols’ career. That led the Cardinals into a whole new era all together, with a new manager in Mike Matheny, a new data-driven management structure and a new no-longer-superstar-centric mindset. For a while, it worked splendidly -- they made the playoffs four consecutive years after Pujols left, and the World Series once, in '13 -- but in recent years, the success has not been as consistent. Matheny was dismissed last year, and the fanbase is as frustrated with the team as it has been since the mid-90s. If they don’t reach the playoffs this season (and they’re currently on the outside looking in), it will be the longest postseason-free stretch since 1988-95.

The Angels, meanwhile, thought they were getting a savior in Pujols, and for good reason. Pujols was fifth in MVP Award voting in 2011 -- he finished in the top five 10 of his 11 years in St. Louis -- and was fresh off a second World Series ring in which he hit three homers in a Game 3 victory. He was essentially Ted Williams for more than a decade, and even though he’d taken a slight step back in '11, he was still a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. The Angels promised to make him the centerpiece of everything they did for the next 10 years. And then … Mike Trout showed up. Trout’s rookie season was Pujols’ first year in Anaheim, and Trout was so obviously and instantly better than everyone else playing the game that Pujols couldn’t help but feel like an expensive mistake in comparison. Pujols was still good his first few years in Anaheim, but the team has only made one playoff series since he arrived, and they were swept.

Injuries and age have diminished Pujols significantly. (His lifetime WAR has actually gone down since he left St. Louis.) He has had a slight bounceback this year -- his OPS+ is over 100, the league average, for the first time since 2016 -- but there’s no question that deal has gone very bad in the back half. And there are still two years to go after this one.

It is not as if Angels fans loathe Pujols or anything: He remains beloved by his teammates, and there’s unquestioned appreciation for his career and how good he remains with fans. But they’d also, you know, like to win a playoff game. Pujols won 40 with the Cardinals. He has won zero with the Angels. There is acknowledgment when Pujols reaches another milestone. But is there reverence? There isn’t reverence. Trout has reverence. Pujols has begrudging appreciation.

In St. Louis, Pujols had reverence -- it requires reverence to ultimately inspire such hurt feelings. The fans said goodbye before he was actually gone. This weekend, Pujols returns to the place that loved him more than anywhere else ever has, or ever will. And with that love, and the 7 1/2 years, comes the acknowledgement from both sides that neither ever had it as good as they had it with each other. The Cardinals won two World Series with Pujols; they’ve won none since he left. The Cardinals ultimately benefited by not having to pay premium prices for Pujols’ decline years.

But they still haven’t won a World Series, and it’s not like they had some future Pujols coming in to take over Pujols' spot. The Cardinals have played 15 different men at first base since Pujols left, including luminaries like Dan Johnson, Chad Huffman, Josh Phelps and Ty Wigginton, and the only All-Star they’ve had at that position is Matt Carpenter, who is now a third baseman. It took them these eight years to find Paul Goldschmidt to be their mainstay at first, and they might end up paying for his decline years anyway. If the Cardinals had signed Pujols for the eight years they were hoping to, he’d have been a disappointment the last couple of years, but he’d also have been a disappointment among fans who adored him and considered him a legend. (And it’s not like the Cardinals have been tearing it up at first base anyway.)

And who knows how Pujols’ storied competitiveness could have helped some Cardinals teams that have seemed to lack a certain edge to them? The Cardinals are probably better off, in a binary, analytical sense, that they didn’t have to pay Pujols $30 million a year for the last eight years. But again: They’ve won only one World Series in the last 52 years without him, back in 1982.

But no one could have known this in 2012. It would have been too soon. We know now. When Pujols returns to Busch on Friday night, he will be treated to retrospective highlight videos, and standing ovations, and maybe even one final moment of launching a baseball deep into the St. Louis night. It’s not what it once was. We’ll never know how this could have turned out. But there have been enough years in the rearview mirror that everyone can stand for one weekend and simply remember the good times, good times that now seem so very long ago.

Pujols has been gone long enough that Cardinals fans can embrace him for what he gave them and let go what he didn’t. And Pujols has seen enough of life outside St. Louis to appreciate precisely what he did have there. Pujols is 39 years old and doesn’t have many moments left in his baseball career. We’re all lucky that he’ll finally get to have this one.