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Hitting out loud: Cardinals icon Albert Pujols’ incomparable career echoes, endures

From the Thanks for the memories: Our special tribute to Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols series
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The Post-Dispatch is publishing a weeklong series on the storied careers of Cardinals Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina as their final regular season in St. Louis comes to a close. Pick up the print edition on Sunday, Oct. 2.

As St. Louis Cardinals legendary player Albert Pujols career comes to an end, take a look back at some of his most memorable moments.

A sunny spring morning, thousands of swings before each one rang with history, a group gathered casually around the batting shell on a back field in Jupiter, Florida, to watch Albert Pujols work.

The regulars arrived — coaches, teammates, and some early-bird fans, chattering and cheering beyond the backstop. A guest of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, Ron Wolf stood near the cage. A few years away from his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as architect of the Green Bay Packers, Wolf spoke softly with a couple of baseball writers, pausing when the big stick connected. The sound gave Pujols away. That sharp, percussive crack comes from the sudden, violent compression of the baseball against the bat. Escaping air pierces the silence as it flees before a line drive follows.

There is the thwack of most bats, and then there is what the wooden instrument does in Pujols’ grip — a resonance, like Yo-Yo Ma with a cello, Bunyan with an axe.

This, Wolf turned to the writers and whispered, is what it must have been like to hear Babe Ruth taking batting practice, to see Ted Williams or, he added later, Stan Musial, unwind for a hit.

“You didn’t even have to look,” Wolf said recently. “You knew who hit it. That’s how you know it’s a rare sound.”

“It’s, ‘OK. Wow. Seriously?’” Mark McGwire said.

“You don’t have to be watching BP or an (at-bat) to know someone elite is taking hacks,” David Freese said. “Very few have that kind of plan, consistent swing to be feared for so long. The sound Albert makes is just different.”

“When he squares the ball up, it just sounds different than everybody else’s,” current teammate Nolan Arenado said. “When he squares it up, it’s loud, it’s a little more echo-y, lasts a little longer than anyone else.”

From the instant he first connected at Cardinals spring training to the moment he leaves his last footprint on the batter’s box, Jose Alberto Pujols retires after a career spent hitting out loud. Loud numbers. Loud achievements. Loud feats. Home runs so loud they silenced two Texas metropolises. He once said the playoff homer in Houston off Brad Lidge was the only time he could hear his cleats crunch as he rounded the bases. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder claimed listening to “Dr. Albert” take batting practice close up popped his ear and cleared a “brutal” ear infection.

Championship closer Kenley Jansen remembers the first time he faced Pujols, in 2011, and the home run he allowed that “was the first Space X; probably went to the moon.”

When Pujols pinch-hit against Milwaukee this past season, former MVP Christian Yelich heard from left field what he had only seen on TV, a “change in the energy in the stadium. Not everyone’s at-bats are a standing ovation that stays standing and cheering for the entirety of a seven-, eight-, nine-pitch at-bat. His are.”

With his children together to see him play for the first time in 2022, he hit two homers Sept. 23 at Dodger Stadium to join the 700-homer club, alongside only Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds. He’s the first Latin player to join. Pujols has the most hits, RBIs, and homers in MLB history of any player born outside the United States. He was the first player to start a career with two seasons batting .300 with at least 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs — and then did it four more consecutive years. Pujols was so good La Russa dispensed with his “tied for first” equivocation. When he left St. Louis as a free agent for the Angels after winning the 2011 World Series, Pujols’ choice rippled through the industry and created such ruckus locally that fans took out their frustration on his statue — which he had after only 11 years. He’d play another 11. If he retired instead of going west, Pujols’ average (.328), on-base percentage (.421), slugging (.617), OPS (1.037), and homers (445) would have been surpassed by only three icons, all Hall of Famers: Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams.

No right-handed hitter since integration could match Pujols’ first 11 years, and he retires second only to Aaron in total bases.

What his swing produced echoes, lasts a little longer than anyone else.

“Albert made the game look easy,” Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said during a visit this summer to St. Louis.

“A nightmare playing against him in October; he was always looming,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He had the heartbeat to get a big hit.”

“You look back,” said former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, “and think about Albert Pujols’ place in history, and you realize now we saw history every day.”

Late in his storybook return to the Cardinals for the last, uplifting chapter, Pujols was asked if his autumnal power surge was a surprise. Pujols paused. His smile flattened. He fixed his eyes on the reporter as if the question was a misplaced, loopy slider. He said anyone who saw him going through drills or heard him in the batting cage every afternoon would not be surprised.

He made a career of this. It’s his work.

“I love this game,” Pujols told the Post-Dispatch shortly after hitting homer No. 687. “I love this game, and it’s because of that love that you have success. You fall in love with the success, but you know what that loves takes, the commitment that love takes. I am passionate about what it takes. I have donated 37 years of my life to this game that I love, and I don’t think that love is ever going to go away even when I do.”

The big bang

Every Sunday during spring training in 2001, Cardinals coaches, La Russa, and members of the baseball operations staff would gather with Jocketty to decide the week’s roster cuts. And every week the same name came up for discussion: Pujols. He was the talk of the camp, the prospect generating the most noise on the field and in the clubhouse.

“Give him another week and see what happens,” they decided.

They started him so he’d get reps against major-league pitching, and he didn’t stop hitting. Give him another week. They played him at third base, first base, and shortstop, and still he hit. Give him another week. They played him in left field, and in his first start there he had a single, a double, and raised his batting average for spring to .351 with eight extra-base hits. Give him another week.

“Kept giving him another week,” Jocketty said.

Eleven All-Star invites, two Gold Glove awards, six Silver Sluggers and week by week he never saw another week in the minors.

Two years earlier, in 1999, the Cardinals had a scout, Dave Karaff, in the Kansas City area and were one of the few teams to see multiple times a junior college infielder, who was born in the Dominican Republic and graduated high school in Missouri. The kid had an ear-catching bat at that level but an uncertain position. Tampa Bay brought him to Tropicana Field for a workout, but it went poorly even before the Rays asked Pujols to try on catching gear. By the 13th round, the Cardinals started filling out their minor-league rosters by drafting for specific positions and had an opening at third base. The name atop their list at that position: Pujols.

He went 402nd overall.

Pujols joined a wood-bat league to hit his way to a better offer from the Cardinals than $10,000, and he did. The best right-handed hitter of his generation agreed to a $60,000 signing bonus. His first hit at Roger Dean Stadium during instructional league was a single up the middle. His second left a dent in the Montreal Expos’ offices beyond the left-field wall.

Watching from the stands, Mike Jorgensen, the director of player development, said, “Well, this will work.”

In his only minor-league season, Pujols won the regular-season MVP award for the Low-A Midwest League and then postseason MVP at Class AAA Memphis. He punctuated that rapid rise with a championship-clinching home run in the 13th inning for the Redbirds. Challenged to improve his fitness, Pujols reported to his first big-league spring training as “the most impressive physical specimen I saw,” Dr. Ken Yamaguchi told baseball writer Rick Hummel. “Like a rock.”

After he heard the swing, McGwire felt that might.

“He gives me a hug, and it’s the strongest hug,” McGwire said. “To this day, when you hug someone and you go, ‘I’m not going to mess with that guy.’ He’s that strong. It’s that same hug that I got in ’01, and it’s that same hug I got in 2022. It’s like his work ethic has never changed. His desire to play the game has never changed. … Oh my god, it was this quiet confidence. You could see it in his eyes, like this horse with blinders running in a race. He had blinders on from Day 1.”

By the last Sunday of spring, Pujols had obviously made the team. Bobby Bonilla‘s injury assured playing time and a spot in the opening day lineup. Pujols handed in his No. 68 jersey and was about to receive No. 32 when Jocketty suggested “a significant number.” Equipment manager Buddy Bates stitched the last name to ever appear above a Cardinals’ No. 5:

PUJOLS.

Echoes of history

The unanimous NL Rookie of the Year in 2001, Pujols debuted before “Moneyball” published and retired before MLB banned defensive shifts. He played against peers who used performance-enhancing drugs and spent the majority of his career being tested. He starred through a data revolution that rewarded damage, downplayed average, and unleashed unseen velocity from the mound — all while equipping pitchers with tech and goop to tighten spin rates. Still, he hit home runs off more than an MLB-record 450 different pitchers. His peers, Jeff Bagwell and Vladimir Guerrero, both Hall of Famers, had 449 total homers, each.

In an era when it was arguably harder to hit than ever, Pujols hit more consistently great than any hitter ever.

“I don’t know how many times he came in after his first at-bat and told the dugout he was going to homer,” Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter said. “He did it literally more than 10 times. He would go up for his first at-bat and even punch out or get jammed, and he would come back to the dugout and go, ‘I’m going to get this guy next at-bat. You watch.’ Next at-bat? Homer.”

The record for consecutive 30-homer seasons to start a career was four until Pujols doubled it to eight. He spotted everyone a year and still won The Aughts’ Triple Crown (2000-09), leading the National League in average (.334), homers (366), and RBIs (1,112). Pujols won his first MVP in 2005. Between his second (2008) and third (2009), he showed up early each morning to help a teammate learn a new position.

His sunrise swings complete, Pujols was the only other player to join coach Jose Oquendo to see Skip Schumaker collect bruises and grounders.

“When he could have been worried about being the best player of all time he was worried about a guy transitioning from the outfield to second base,” said Schumaker, now bench coach. “I cannot imagine the pressure on him each day. What does a day feel like when you have a chance to be the best ever, or in the top three, top five to ever play?”

Several weeks after Pujols matched Ruth and Reggie Jackson with three homers in a World Series game and the 2011 championship parade, the Angels’ $240 million dwarfed the Cardinals’ offer to him and lured him west. He left St. Louis, but not the Cardinals: Yadier Molina would FaceTime Pujols during hitters meetings and pass the phone around. In town one series before the Cardinals visited, Pujols left a letter in Wainwright’s locker. With the Los Angeles Angels, Pujols saw one postseason but hit many milestones that shout excellence.

The 3,000-hit club has 33 members.

Seven are also in the 500-homer club.

Three of those seven had 2,000 RBIs.

One of those three has won two championships.

Albert Pujols.

“And he’s back there working in the cage like he’s 20 and trying to make the team,” said hitting coach Jeff Albert, “not just 40 trying to make history.”

After an abrupt release by the Angels in 2021, the Dodgers signed Pujols for a new role — an answer against left-handed pitching and an “uncle” in the clubhouse. Revitalized, Pujols could go home again. John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, called Pujols on the drive to Jupiter, Florida, after a game in Port St. Lucie. As they talked reunion the tone was different from previous conversations, not player and boss but “simply two guys who have known each other for 20 years,” Mozeliak said.

They spoke on a Sunday and came to an agreement.

Get him another year and see what happens.

“In the end, we both knew the right answer,” Mozeliak said. “He’s part of the magic here. He helped build the magic around here.”

Sounds of joy

The morning after Pujols hit two homers vs. the Brewers — Nos. 688 and 689 — the Pujols Family Foundation and “Coach Ballgame” hosted a clinic for children with Down syndrome at a Miracle Field. It was an off day for the Cardinals and Pujols was not expected or advertised to attend.

The “first rule” of every Sandlot event, said James “Coach Ballgame” Lowe is everyone gets a nickname. So he had a lot of “Alberts” and “Pujols” on the field and was tossing them pitches when he noticed a change in volume.

“It went from a ballgame, this loud vibe, you know, to almost getting quiet,” Lowe recalled of his Aug. 15 visit to St. Louis. “It was like — Elvis is in the building. Is that him? Is that Albert? A hush came over the crowd.”

And then the kids gave away the answer and rushed for hugs.

“That was the sound of joy,” Lowe said.

As much as Pujols’ production has been part of his career, so too has his philanthropic presence. The Pujols Family Foundation remains active in St. Louis (120 events in 2022) and continues relief and medical missions to the Dominican Republic — which Pujols often joins, cradling children to comfort and quiet them as their teeth are examined. That is his life’s work.

When next Pujols’ hit two homers in a game — Nos. 691 and 692 — he surpassed Musial for total bases, and the following day he moved through the clubhouse with son A.J. at his side. MLB Network was on the big screen. The sound was low, closed captioning on, and Pujols’ highlights rolling. The panel discussed Pujols’ place as one of the best right-handed hitters. One word lingered on the flatscreen: “ever.”

“Ever, ever,” added A.J., and then followed his father out of the room.

Back to work.

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