Tony La Russa doesn't tell this story often, but he thought it was worth repeating late Sunday afternoon in his office. After Albert Pujols had won a second consecutive extra-inning game against the Chicago Cubs with, in this case, a high-stepping, walkoff home run, the Cardinals' manager hearkened to the night in Phoenix in October 2001, when his team was eliminated in the last inning of the last game of a playoff series by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The team had gathered at a steakhouse for a party sponsored by Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., and, at one point during the night and early morning of commiseration and celebration, Pujols, then a rookie, asked La Russa to sign a photo of the two of them. La Russa said he "wanted to do right by it" and said he would give it to Pujols on the plane ride home the next morning.
When La Russa presented Pujols the photo, he had inscribed, "To Albert. The best player I've ever managed."
And this was after one season, mind you.
"I told Mark (McGwire) and other guys, when they ask about Albert, I mean no disrespect to (Carlton) Fisk and (Greg) Luzinski and Harold Baines or Rickey Henderson ... great players in all the teams we've had ... but I believe Albert's the best, just because of the way he plays the game," said La Russa.
"And I don't think that's changed. He doesn't play to generate stats and the money that comes with it. It's hard for me to admit that (Pujols is the best) because I think it offends the other guys. But there's something about Albert.
"Every year, he proves it more.
"And now you have the latest example of the greatness. That's why he's gotten the label 'great player.' It's because he does great things."
Pujols' homer Sunday in a 3-2 win leading off the 10th inning came on a 2-1 pitch. Saturday's homer to win the game in the 12th came on a 2-1 pitch. The pitchers were different but Sunday's victim, Rodrigo Lopez, had rendered Pujols nothing for 12 in his career.
"I'm one for 13," said Pujols, smiling. "I know that. You don't have to remind me."
La Russa said, "I was hoping for a lousy single," and Pujols said he was "just trying to hit the ball back through the middle. I've got two guys swinging the bat pretty well the last six weeks in Jon Jay and Allen Craig. I was trying to give them the opportunity to become the hero."
Jay and Craig didn't get that chance but Pujols insisted, "The player of the game shouldn't have been myself. I think it should have been Chris Carpenter and (winning pitcher Fernando) Salas."
When Pujols had rounded third and headed for home to be mobbed for a second straight afternoon, he broke into a high-chopping running style, almost like a football player running through a series of tires during a drill.
Pujols said, "It's a big game and a big win. It was a great comeback as a team. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you don't embarrass yourself."
La Russa was OK with it. "He didn't take a celebratory tour and wave to all the fans," said La Russa. "Those last few steps, he was excited."
But Chicago ace Carlos Zambano, who stood to beat Cardinals ace Carpenter for the fifth time in their nine personal meetings even though Carpenter worked a strong nine innings, told reporters that "Pujols wasn't the problem."
Zambrano then launched into a soliloquy that involved Ryan Theriot's two-out double off Cubs closer Carlos Marmol that tied the score at 2-2 in the ninth.
Marmol hadn't allowed a run on the road since last Aug. 10, a span of 25 games, but Theriot jumped on Marmol's trademark slider to score Tony Cruz, running for Yadier Molina, from first.
"The problem was (Theriot's) at-bat," said Zambrano. "We should know better than this. We play like a Triple-A team. This is embarrassing for the team, for the owners, embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing. That's the word here for this team. We should know better than this. We should know better than what we do on the field.
"We should know that (former Cub) Ryan Theriot is not a good fastball hitter. We should know that as a team. We should play better. We stinks. That's all I've got to say. We're a Triple-A team.''
Theriot, who extended his career-high hitting streak to 19, said, "You can't go up there trying to pull the ball. It's one of those things. I got a pitch I could handle. His slider's the best in the game."
But, like nearly everybody else, Theriot was talking about Pujols, who had four homers in the three-game series, drove in seven runs and even beat out an infield hit as he slid into first base.
"He's ridiculous," said Theriot, who marveled at how many of the 40 thousand-plus fans in the Busch Stadium house were standing when Pujols came to bat with nobody on in the 10th.
"It was almost like everybody knew it was going to happen," said Theriot. "They were right."
La Russa has managed in the big leagues since 1979 and hasn't seen many duplicates such as Pujols provided Saturday and Sunday. But there was one.
La Russa cited back-to-back games in July 1988 when his Oakland Athletics won consecutive extra-inning games in Toronto and Cleveland. The manager thought both games, played on July 3-4, were 15 innings in length, but actually both games went 16 innings. The fact remained, though, that La Russa's memory was dead-on when he recalled that McGwire, now the Cardinals' hitting coach but then an A's slugger, walloped 16th-inning homers to win both games.
Carpenter has played with Pujols longer than anybody here, joining the team in 2003. "Obviously, he has done what he's needed to do the last few days to quiet some issues going on around here," said Carpenter.
"By his standards, he's been struggling. But he's not. He's just not hitting .350 and having a 100 homers by the All-Star break.
"He's a fabulous player. He's a guy who will continue to never not amaze you with the things he can do. We're very fortunate here in this city — the guys of the media, the coaches, the players — to see him play every day.
"It would be neat," said Carpenter, "that when I'm 70 to say that I played with him."