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St. Louis cares about Pujols reaching 3,000

Could an eventual reunion be in the cards?
MLB.com @williamfleitch

Sometime soon, Albert Pujols is going to become the 32nd player in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits, and the fourth to also have more than 600 homers (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez are the others). He will do so as a member of the Angels, with whom he has played the past six-plus seasons and, presumably, will play the next three.

Pujols' pending milestone has been noted and appreciated in baseball circles, but all told, it has been relatively muted, as far as these things go. When Derek Jeter was approaching his 3,000th hit, it felt as if baseball itself had to stop every time he so much as approached the on-deck circle. But Pujols' quest is arguably the third-most compelling story on his team, behind the ongoing Shohei Ohtani extravaganza and Mike Trout doing his usual extraordinary things. Pujols was the king of the sport six years ago, with a future that hinted at all sort of historic milestones. And now that he's about to reach one of the shiniest ones ... it doesn't seem like that many people care.

Sometime soon, Albert Pujols is going to become the 32nd player in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits, and the fourth to also have more than 600 homers (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez are the others). He will do so as a member of the Angels, with whom he has played the past six-plus seasons and, presumably, will play the next three.

Pujols' pending milestone has been noted and appreciated in baseball circles, but all told, it has been relatively muted, as far as these things go. When Derek Jeter was approaching his 3,000th hit, it felt as if baseball itself had to stop every time he so much as approached the on-deck circle. But Pujols' quest is arguably the third-most compelling story on his team, behind the ongoing Shohei Ohtani extravaganza and Mike Trout doing his usual extraordinary things. Pujols was the king of the sport six years ago, with a future that hinted at all sort of historic milestones. And now that he's about to reach one of the shiniest ones ... it doesn't seem like that many people care.

But know: People in St. Louis care. They might care too much.

Since Pujols left to sign with the Angels after that 2011 World Series, the attitude of Cardinals fans toward the player once so beloved in St. Louis that he was bestowed with the nickname "El Hombre," placing him alongside Stan "The Man" Musial, the franchise's patron saint, has evolved. At first, the Halos' usurping of the Cards' 11-year star was met with anger, partly toward the Angels, but mostly toward Pujols and his wife, who had said she and her husband were "insulted" by the Cardinals' offer of five years, $130 million. But as far as these things go, that anger dissipated rather quickly, for four primary reasons:

• The Cardinals had just won the World Series in the most thrilling way imaginable, and it's tough to stay too mad about anything right after something like that.

• The quotes from Pujols and his wife after he left were hardly that inflammatory in the grand scheme of matters, and once everyone calmed down, they were at last understood as such.

• The Cardinals had immediate success in the wake of Pujols' departure, reaching the National League Championship Series three straight years after he left and the World Series in 2013.

• Pujols stopped being the best hitter in baseball ... and his drop-off in performance has been severe. This is the primary reason.

The decline of Pujols in recent years has been well-documented, but it's worth looking a little closer at just how different a player he has been in Los Angeles than he was in St. Louis.

Here are his slash lines for each team, along with total WAR (per FanGraphs) and, notably, total salary:

Cardinals (2001-11):.328/.420/.617, 81.3, WAR, $104 million
Angels (2012-present):.261/.317/.458, 6.8 WAR, $153 million (with $87 million left)

Pujols' slash line with the Cardinals is basically Barry Bonds' career slash line; but with the Angels, it is Jay Bruce's (a little worse, actually). And the past two seasons have been particularly gruesome. In 2017, Pujols had a -1.9 WAR, making him one of the worst players in baseball. He started that year with a higher career WAR than Chipper Jones, who retired in 2012, but finished it below him. This year isn't going much better. Pujols has a .266 OBP, which is 161st out of 178 qualified hitters.

Tweet from @VanHicklestein: This makes me happy. pic.twitter.com/PqXyOEMvjK

So this certainly has something to do with the lack of fanfare for Pujols' 3,000th hit as well, right? It feels a little wrong to focus too much attention on Pujols at this moment in his career. We want to remember him for what he was, rather than what he is at this moment, the same way we all try to forget that Willie Mays finished his career with the Mets. (Though it's worth pointing out that he was, in his final days, still better than Pujols is right now.) You want to remember Pujols for his prime, rather than this lamentable decline.

And there is no place that remembers Pujols' prime better than St. Louis. For my money, the greatest Pujols game was July 20, 2004, on the best Cardinals team of my lifetime, a game the Cards trailed 7-1 after two innings before Pujols just kept blasting them back, hitting three homers (and also a single and a double), culminating in a ninth-inning homer off LaTroy Hawkins to complete the comeback with a 10-8 lead.

Video: STL@CHC: Pujols blasts three homers against the Cubs

There are of course hundreds of others, ultimately ending with that 2011 World Series, in which Pujols hit three homers in a game and eventually scored on David Freese's infamous last-pitch triple. In St. Louis, Pujols is not a player in decline or a financial albatross. He remains eternally 31, raking; Ted Williams in his prime, El Hombre. Who can stay up late enough to find out what's happening in Anaheim anyway?

Another main reason for this helpful forgetfulness: Pujols has yet to return to Busch Stadium. Thanks to a scheduling quirk caused by the 2016 political conventions, the Angels still haven't visited St. Louis since he left. According to Derrick Goold at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MLB has promised a trip in 2019, at last. Pujols has played the Cardinals in Anaheim, and it did look weird.

Video: STL@LAA: Pujols pulls Angels within two with homer

Thus: Pujols' impending 3,000th hit has captivated St. Louis this week. The hot debate: Would this be a larger deal nationally if Pujols had never left St. Louis? If he were going for his 3,000 hit for the same franchise, becoming only the second Cardinals player to reach 3,000 hits with the team (other than Musial, of course), would this be a Jeter situation or even a Craig Biggio situation? For that matter: Would the Cards have had the success they've had since Pujols left if his decline had happened with them rather than the Angels? Would Cardinals fans still love him as much had he fell off the cliff like this in front of the fans who saw his glory years? And, perhaps most enticingly: Is there a potential thawing, even a reunion, waiting in the wings someday?

This last point is a big one, probably the biggest one, because 3,000 hits is a milestone, when you start talking about milestones, you start talking about the Hall of Fame. It would seem obvious, when Pujols is eventually elected to the Hall, that he would wear a Cardinals hat on his plaque. He played more years there, he won two World Series there, won three National League MVP Awards there. But the Angels thought of this when they signed him, giving him a notorious (in St. Louis anyway) 10-year "services contract" that pays him $1 million a year for 10 years after he retires, which wouldn't just complicate the Hall of Fame hat matter, but also potentially keeps Pujols out of St. Louis' Opening Day festivities, in which Cards Hall of Famers all return, wear gaudy red jackets and are paraded around as legends.

Video: ARI@STL: Cardinals Hall of Famers honored pregame

These "services contracts" are often ignored or discarded when one's career actually ends, but a million bucks a year is a million bucks a year. As long as that contract still exists, it'll still feel uneasy for the Cardinals and their fans to truly embrace Pujols the way the years have slowly made more likely, and amenable, to happen. Cards fans watch Pujols from afar, seeing him reach milestones he did almost all the heavy lifting for in St. Louis, ready for love him again, to do what we all do, or at least try to do, as we get older: Remember the good times while letting go of the bad. If there can be a "Roseanne" reunion, there surely can be a Pujols-Cardinals one.

Both the Cardinals and Pujols have their own concerns right now, independent of Pujols' milestone chase: They are, after all, both firm postseason contenders. But to see him reaching this vaunted number of 3,000, and not being a part of it, and seeing how few others seem to appreciate it the way Cards fans wish they could ... it points to an emotional breakthrough down the line, the two sides returning to each other for the sake of each other.

It may just have to wait until next year, when Pujols and the Angels finally make it to Busch. Pujols will have his 3,000 hits by then. That 3,000th hit will happen very soon, and it will be greeted with polite appreciation and a standing ovation. But it'll be nothing like the roar that comes from Busch next year. It may have taken nearly eight years, but by then, both sides will at last be ready.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Albert Pujols