HOUSTON -- Almost 13 years later, Jose Pujols still hears the boos when he steps into the batter's box at Minute Maid Park."It's one of those things that people remember where they were when it happened," Pujols said. "I hear that a lot when I'm here. It's one of those
HOUSTON -- Almost 13 years later, Jose Pujols still hears the boos when he steps into the batter's box at Minute Maid Park.
"It's one of those things that people remember where they were when it happened," Pujols said. "I hear that a lot when I'm here. It's one of those crazy things."
In this city, it remains the single most devastating gut punch ever suffered by the Astros. All these years later, the memory of one home run in 2005 remains vivid to so many, and if that isn't a statement about the power of this game to captivate the heart -- or occasionally crush it -- nothing will.
"Our fans were going to storm the field," said Lance Berkman, an Astros outfielder that year. "We were on the precipice. It's still unbelievable."
Here's the background: the Astros were about to win the 2005 National League Championship Series. They were close enough to touch it and taste it and to imagine how sweet it would be. After all the years of disappointment, redemption finally was at hand.
Berkman's three-run home run in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the NLCS had turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead. The Astros led the series 3-1 at the time.
"I ended up just being a little background music," Berkman said.
As the final six outs were counted down, Minute Maid Park became a wild street party, shaking to its concrete and steel bones with a packed crowd prepared to celebrate the franchise's sweetest moment.
And then with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, with two runners on base, almost out of nowhere, Pujols interrupted the festivities with one of the longest home runs ever hit.
Or at least it seemed that way at the time. Television replays caught Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte mouthing the words "Oh my God" in the home dugout.
The thing is, that ball shot out of the park so ferociously, so violently, that it was hard for some to grasp what they were seeing.
We're not going to the World Series?
"It was the loudest I'd ever heard [Minute Maid Park]," Astros television man Bill Brown remembered. "And then it got so quiet you could almost hear Pujols' footsteps rounding the bases."
The Cardinals won the game, 5-4, and suddenly, there was a familiar sinking feeling around Houston. They'd led the 2004 NLCS 3-1, but the Cardinals won Games 6 and 7 to send the Astros home. One year later, Pujols had pushed the series back to St. Louis for Game 6 and possibly another Game 7.
"If Albert's booed here, it's out of respect," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "People who've followed baseball in Houston have long memories, and they follow the game and understand it. When people do special things like Albert did, these fans are going to remember."
Pujols is back at Minute Maid Park this week as a member of the Angels and at a different point in his career. He's closing in on his 3,000th career hit and has long since punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame, with 618 home runs and three NL Most Valuable Player Awards.
As for the Astros, plenty has happened since 2005. For one thing, they did rally to win that NLCS. For another, winning the World Series last fall is a nice salve to whatever hard feelings still exist.
But right on cue, when Pujols stepped into the batter's box in the top of the second inning Monday night, the boos came, a few of them anyway -- less than there were in 2006 when he returned to Houston for the first time after his stunning home run.
What other player is remembered that way 13 years later? Pujols' 57 regular-season home runs against the Astros are his most against any opponent. Thirty of those have come at Minute Maid Park, tied with PNC Park for his most in a visiting ballpark.
"In his prime, there's no doubt in my mind he was the greatest hitter in the history of the game," said Berkman, who played against Pujols during 12 seasons with the Astros and was a teammate for two with the Cardinals, including 2011 when St. Louis won the World Series.
"Nobody I've ever seen, that, if you needed a three-run home run to win a game and he didn't hit it, you were shocked," Berkman said. "I'm not exaggerating. That's how his teammates saw him."
In 13 postseason games against the Astros in 2004 and '05, Pujols batted .412 with six home runs and 15 RBIs. He walked five times, and some Astros fans will astutely point to perhaps the most telling statistic of all: zero intentional walks. Yeah, keep pitching to him, fellas, and maybe he'll hit one of those lasers at someone.
"People still talk about it 15 years later," Pujols said. "I think that memory is one of those things that every time I run into Houston fans, they bring it up. 'Man, do you remember that home run? You ruined Brad's career.'"
That's a reference to Astros closer Brad Lidge, who delivered the pitch.
"Ruined his career?" Pujols said. "I remind them he went to Philly and had 41 saves and won a World Series [in 2008]."
When the Cardinals returned to Minute Maid Park the following season, 2006, Pujols heard the boos the moment he stepped from the dugout. As he got into the batter's box, Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said, "I think they still remember that home run. They may not forget that one."
Funny how it works out. That defeat only the delayed the inevitable. Two nights later, Astros ace Roy Oswalt pitched seven dominant innings and the Astros won, 5-1, to clinch the NL pennant.
"That was an angry Roy Oswalt," Pujols said. "He struck me out on three pitches in my first at-bat, and I went back and told the guys, 'We're going to have a long night tonight.' He was such a competitor."
Almost everyone who has played with or against Pujols says the same thing.
"The passion for baseball oozes out of Albert," Scioscia said. "He loves every part of this game and lives for the moment. He wants to win. There are many things we've come to admire about him, but none more than that."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.