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Goold: A new bat, old friends, and timeless magic as Cardinals’ Albert Pujols soars to 700

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Pujols hits 700

The Cardinals' Albert Pujols is congratulated by third base coach Pop Warner after hitting home run No. 700 of his career in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 at Dodger Stadium. 

LOS ANGELES — In his first season as batboy for the visitors’ dugout at Dodger Stadium, Oscar Ramirez studies the arrangement of bats in the bat rack, so when one splinters at the plate he can swiftly greet the batter with two new ones. He wants to offer the hitter a choice.

In the third inning Friday night as Pujols walked back toward the dugout holding a bat fractured at the handle by a slider he smashed for a foul ball, Ramirez hustled onto the field with only one Marucci model AP5 he picked out for Pujols.

Pujols' broken bat replaced by ‘magic wand'

St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols looks over a broken bat off a foul ball in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 at Dodger Stadium. His replacement bat hit home run number 699 on his next swing, followed by his historic 700th home run an inning later. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

“It was in the heat of the moment,” Ramirez said. “It was crazy. I looked for the engraved ‘5’. There were two. Something told me go right. I went with the right bat.”

He handed the magician his wand.

With that familiar flair for timing and talent for giving the biggest stage his best show, Pujols’ next two swings — his first two swings of the evening with that bat — launched himself into the most exclusive club of hitters in Major League Baseball history. The pitch after breaking his bat, Pujols rocketed the 699th home run of his career. An inning later he lofted No. 700 into the bleachers at Dodger Stadium. Albert joins Babe, Hank, and Barry as the only members of the 700-homer club. He is the first Latin player to reach 700 and one of only two players ever with 700 homers, 3,000 hits, and 2,000 RBIs. Hank Aaron is the other.

As he started his 700th lap around the bases, Pujols looked elated, his arms outstretched toward his teammates and the “600” medallion he’s been wearing bobby against his chest. His latest and greatest gust of history came in the first game this season with all five of his children present to see.

“Because of this — my beautiful family,” Pujols said, gesturing to his sons and daughters gathered around him. “After the Lord, that’s who I play for. They’ve been walking through this journey, through the ups and downs, through the cries and the hurts and the injuries. Knowing they have my back, and having them in the stands, at this game, like this, become part of this history, means a lot to mean. Everything, pretty much, to me.”

Pujols hits 700

The Cardinals' Albert Pujols joins his children during a news conference following hitting his 700th home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 at Dodger Stadium. 

Pujols’ milestone home runs produced the first five runs of the Cardinals’ 11-0 rout of the Dodgers. The homers were Nos. 20 and 21 of the season. Fifteen have come since the All-Star break. With the bat handed to him by Ramirez, Pujols mashed No. 699 off a 94-mph fastball from Dodgers starter Andrew Heaney, a lefty. The ball traveled 434 feet — one of the Cardinals’ longest homers of the season. An inning later, in the fourth, LA brought in right-handed reliever Phil Bickford. Jose Quintana nudged teammate Jordan Montgomery, a fellow lefty, in the Cardinals’ dugout and mentioned how cool it would be if No. 700 came against a right-hander.

Cool it was, Quintana later confirmed.

Before going to the plate, Pujols told Ramirez and MLB’s authenticator that he was going to use the same bat as No. 699 one more time. He took a strike and a ball from Bickford and then jumped a hanging slider, sending it 389 feet into the stands and forever into the highlights.

“As soon as he looked into the dugout with his arms up, it was like, ‘I did it,’” manager Oliver Marmol said.

Pujols hits 700

St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols hits home run number 700 in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 at Dodger Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

“A lot of sensations. I almost cried,” said Quintana, who pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings for the win. “That happened on my day. I’m never going to forget this night.”

The baseball from No. 699 was confirmed by MLB and returned to the Cardinals for Pujols. The three-time MVP met with the fan who caught it late Friday night. The fans who snagged No. 700 had the ball authenticated by a Major League Baseball representative and then, one official said, “walked.”

Pujols stressed that “souvenirs are for fans.”

Ramirez, the first-year batboy, is a 20-year-old college student from nearby El Monte, California. He takes a full course load and works a full-time job at the ballpark. Already this year he’s manned the bats for an All-Star Game, witnessed Clayton Kershaw make Dodger history, and prepped for his first postseason. He was setting up the dugout and checking through his pre-game chores as Pujols circulated on the field during batting practice.

Pujols hugged his former teammates with the Dodgers. He lifted up the LA batting coach who helped him modify his leg kick to generate better timing and more power. He laughed with Dodgers execs, including CEO Stan Kasten, and they chided him about the size of his bejeweled 600 necklace, asking how big is the 725 pendant? Pujols repeated to them what he’s repeated to everyone — he’s not coming back to chase numbers or changing his mind about retiring. These are his final swings. He told them privately what he would later say to the entire crowd, explaining how being a Dodger last season “brought back the joy” he felt playing the game as a boy.

Without that spark, he was going to retire.

Without that time as a Dodger, he would never have returned as a Cardinal.

Without ending his career as a Cardinal, he never would have hit 700.

“If they weren’t going to give me the opportunity, I don’t think I would be sitting here today,” Pujols said of the Dodgers signing him a year ago. “You guys wouldn’t see the history tonight. … It’s great when you have great people around you who believe in you.”

During BP, Pujols chatted with Hall of Fame-bound third baseman and fellow Dominican Adrian Beltre, the All-Star whose record Pujols’ surpassed to become the all-time leader for hits by a player born outside the United States. Beltre came to witness history, and Pujols told him, “Man, I want to do this for our country.” He could not have picked a more fitting day.

On Sept. 23, 1956, Ozzie Virgil Sr. started at third base for the New York Giants and became the first Dominican Republic-born player to debut in the majors.

Sixty-six years, to the date, Pujols became the first Dominican with 700 homers.

“God works his thing in amazing ways sometimes we don’t understand,” Pujols said when told of the anniversary by the Post-Dispatch. “I’m just glad I was able to do it tonight.”

“It means a lot for us,” said Quintana, who grew up in Colombia and counts Edgar Renteria as a mentor. “He tried to say something with that, ‘Hey, guys, you can do that, too.’ No matter where you’re coming from, we can do good things in baseball, at this level. I think he delivered that message for Latin guys.”

After the win, after they trimmed that magic number for the division title to four, the Cardinals gathered in the clubhouse for their second champagne toast of history this month. They previously gathered to honor Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina for setting the major-league record for starts by a battery, at 325. Special labels featuring Pujols, his signature, and a neon-glow “700,” were prepared and packed for the possibility of Friday’s feats.

Pujols was also showered in water and beer by his teammates after Wainwright and Molina stuffed him and spun him in a laundry cart.

“Imagine me jumping in there,” said Pujols, 42. “I struggled getting out.”

His children laughed at that line.

Marmol had a sense coming to the ballpark Friday that the confluence of events — a return to Dodger Stadium, a playoff chase, Hollywood, and his family at the ballpark — primed the weekend for something special, just not so soon, or so rapidly in back-to-back at-bats. During his post-game toast of the newest 700 man, Marmol touched on that and Pujols’ promise in spring.

“That’s what he’s known for — doing big things in the big moments,” Marmol said. “That’s what I told the club. This is just helping us win. His whole thing coming back and signing was, ‘I can help you win a championship and in the midst of doing that he’s hitting homers.”

Not too far from the bat rack from which Ramirez pulled the AP5 that had one remarkable game before retirement, and not quite out of sight from the dugout, Pujols found a spot to be alone after No. 700.

His manager saw him crouch down, put his face in his hands, and remain still.

“Coolest part for me,” Marmol said. “Him by himself, no cameras, no nothing, just him taking in the moment.”

A few hours later, still sticky from some beer spritz, Pujols mentioned the people who came to mind in the calm that came after 700. He mentioned his grandmother, his father, his family in the Dominican Republic, and the others who could be watching. He talked about the scout who befriended him and quit when Tampa Bay didn’t draft him. Fernando Arango, who was later hired by the Cardinals, “was somebody who believed in me in 1999. Someone I almost considered my dad.” Arango died several years ago of cancer, Pujols said, and he paused in the dugout to think how Arango’s would have been the first text he received about No. 700.

Pujols was soon back with teammates, grinning with Molina, and watching home runs from several of the youngest hitters on the roster light up the scoreboard. The scoring that began with Pujols’ Nos. 699 and 700 home runs ended for the Cardinals when rookie Alec Burleson pinch-hit for Pujols and homered for his No. 1.

Pujols said the location of his homer meant the world.

So did the laundry.

“To do it with this uniform is even better,” he said.

The jersey and the batting helmet he wore for the two homers received an authentication from Major League Baseball. They are his to keep or donate to a Hall of Fame. The bat he used also finally got that authentication, too. That happened a few steps away from where Ramirez rushed to get it and then deliver it.

As Pujols left the Cardinals’ clubhouse late Friday night — one of the last players to do so — Ramirez was still tidying up with his boss and fellow clubbies.

“Picked the right bat,” he said. “Part of history now.”

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