Vet presence of 'Tío Albert' invaluable for LA

October 23rd, 2021

ATLANTA -- After a two-homer performance in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves, Dodgers outfielder AJ Pollock sat before reporters at a postgame news conference podium. He wasn’t talking about his own showing at the plate. Instead, Pollock, a 2015 All-Star, was listening intently to every word , who sat to his left, was saying.

Pujols, 41, is arguably the best right-handed hitter of his generation, but he’s no longer the player he once was. Nor is he the most feared hitter in the game, one who tormented the National League Central for over a decade as a member of the Cardinals. He does, however, know how to command the attention of everyone in the room.

At this stage in his career, Pujols has found a way to savor every moment this season, even if his contributions don’t show up like they once did. He hasn’t yet announced plans for his future, and he doesn’t expect to until after the season. Pujols' focus is on trying to help the Dodgers win another title and sharing every bit of wisdom he has with younger players.

“You see guys play this game for so long, and they never get a chance to be in the postseason,” Pujols said. “I’ve been blessed to be in so many games, winning the World Series, and it’s fun. This is what every player plays for. … Being in this situation is pretty special. I enjoy when I’m playing. I enjoy when I’m on the bench, just helping guys out as much as I can.”

In a clubhouse full of stars and future Hall of Famers, it’s not often that you see a midseason acquisition make as big of an impact as Pujols has made on this Dodgers team. When he talks, everyone listens. When he walks into a room, the presence of a baseball icon is palpable.

“Since Day 1, he’s had a huge impact on all of us in there,” said Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. “Just his leadership, his experience, work ethic. And the way he goes about his business, he sets an example for everyone.”

In a short period of time, Pujols has established himself as a team leader. “Tío Albert” T-shirts hang in every locker inside the Dodgers' clubhouse. His post-homer hugs have quickly become a Los Angeles tradition. If his teammates -- particularly the hitters -- need to hear a veteran voice, it’s usually Pujols who delivers with the clear message.

“I’ve said it probably 100 times, when you see him at the end of the dugout after a guy hits a homer, it’s almost like he’s more happy than the guy that hit the homer, just waiting to give you a big hug,” Turner said. “He’s been great for everyone, and he just brings so much to this team.”

While Pujols has given the Dodgers an invaluable clubhouse presence, he’s still very much capable of impacting a game with his bat. He has continued to rake against left-handed pitching. Pujols wrapped up the regular season with a .303 average and 10 homers against southpaws since joining Los Angeles on May 17. His ability was on full display again on Thursday, going 2-for-2 with a walk against Braves ace Max Fried.

“He’s just been an outstanding leader for us all season, and we have a lot of confidence in him,” said Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor. “Obviously he’s been in some huge moments, huge spots in his career, and he’s a true professional and he can really hit.”

When the Angels designated Pujols for assignment in May, it looked like his career was going to come to an unceremonious end. Pujols, however, never let those thoughts creep into his mind.

Pujols continued to work. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer still wanted to prove that he could contribute, and he wanted to make sure he would be ready when or if another opportunity materialized. A few days after Pujols cleared waivers, he received a call. The Dodgers, who were desperately looking for another right-handed bat, were interested.

Manager Dave Roberts and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman laid out a straightforward plan to Pujols. He wasn’t going to play every day. In fact, he would probably only get starts against left-handed pitching. Accepting a reduced role isn’t always easy for a former perennial All-Star, but Pujols agreed to the terms. It has gone even better than the Dodgers could have hoped.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” Pujols said. “I take my at-bats. I take my at-bats like it’s my last game of my career, and that’s been the same since Day 1, when I got the opportunity to wear a uniform with the Cardinals in 2001."

Only Pujols knows exactly when it’ll be his last time putting on a Major League uniform. Maybe it’s at the end of the Dodgers’ current postseason run. Maybe it’s not. Right now, the best Dominican-born hitter of all time is just enjoying being back in this moment, with a chance to wrap up his historic career with a third World Series title.

“This is something that I will treasure forever in my life,” Pujols said.