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From a competitor's view, Cardinals Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina represent the test of time

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Cardinals, Padres at Petco Park

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina sits with designated hitter Albert Pujols in the dugout while playing the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022 at Petco Park. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

It was on July 28, 2008 when Braves right-hander Charlie Morton, a rookie with Atlanta at the time, stepped onto the mound at Turner Field for his first-ever encounter against the Cardinals.

The start was Morton’s seventh of his career and came at a time that he described as him “just trying to survive for a few years” in the majors. With 36 innings of big-league experience up to that point, the righty was tasked with facing a St. Louis lineup that featured Albert Pujols, who was in the midst of the second of three MVP seasons, and Yadier Molina, who batted .304 that year and would be named to seven consecutive All-Star games in the next seven seasons to follow.

“I just remember seeing Pujols step in the box and he had already done so much in the game,” Morton said. “And then Yadi I remember was already well-established.”

14 years after their first meeting, Morton has gone from a rookie “trying to survive” in the majors to a two-time World Series champion with 13 years of MLB service under his belt. Meanwhile, Pujols and Molina have, well, upheld the same status Morton saw as a rookie.

“For somebody to play that long and do it at that level is just extremely difficult,” Morton said. “It has to be the most difficult thing to do. So I would say that looking across at that dugout when they step in the box, I'm paying attention. Those are the guys I'm watching. We may never see those guys again, like players like that.”

As Molina, in his 19th season, and Pujols, in his 22nd, approach the ends of their careers, they leave not only a legacy behind that can be told through numbers. Through their commitment to the game and their consistency to produce at a high level, they’ve left an impact on baseball that has instilled admiration from their peers, including those who know the toll it takes.

“There are a lot of sacrifices that you need to make,” Nationals designated hitter and 18-year MLB veteran Nelson Cruz said in Spanish. “As a player, you sacrifice family time. To play 20 years, there are a lot of injuries. … It’s not just about those great things you see with the numbers on the field. There are a lot things that fans don’t see behind the cameras.”

From the start of their respective rookie campaigns to their joint farewell season in 2022, Pujols and Molina each created milestone moments. Three MVPs, over 700 home runs, and 2,200 RBIs from Pujols. Nine Gold Gloves and four Platinum Gloves (given to the best defender of the year in each league) from Molina along with 325 starts as a battery between him and fellow longtime Cardinal Adam Wainwright. The list can go on for the two.

And in that time from their debuts to their closing chapters that still have pages left, they’ve created fans. Fans like Rockies starter German Marquez, who has a photo of him and Pujols labeled under his favorites on his phone. Other fans like Nationals first baseman and St. Louis native Luke Voit, who, as a high schooler, “cheered with all his buddies” from his basement as Pujols silenced Minute Maid Park in the 2005 NLCS.

“Two Hall of Famers, two great humans and, you know, I respect the hell out of them,” said Voit, a former Cardinal who played with Molina as well.

While their legacies extended, their fandom stretched across the region.

“Their careers that they've had have been unbelievable — both of them,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “I'm from Memphis. I grew up watching the St. Louis Cardinals. And to play in the same stadium that he (Pujols) was hitting homers in when I was growing up, I think that's pretty sweet.”

With Pujols hailing from the Dominican Republic and Molina from Puerto Rico, their impact helped set a benchmark for success among Latin players and, for some, the chance to share the field with a pair of icons.

“For us, they're legends of baseball,” Dominican-born Rockies pitcher Dinelson Lamet said in Spanish. “Going from being a fan to becoming a competitor playing at the same level as them makes me feel super proud, personally.”

Careers that have included 11 All-Star appearances from Pujols and 10 from Molina have kept them in the game long enough to cross paths with the stars of the future.

“It feels great to have shared the field with two future members of the Hall of Fame,” Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. said in Spanish.

While reigniting divisional rivalries at the same time.

“Man it just shows the consistency you have to have to be able to do it that long,” Brewers outfielder and former MVP Andrew McCutchen said. “You got to be consistent. That's the biggest thing about being here and staying here. And they've pretty much been able to do that throughout their careers and that's why they're still here.”

They’ve helped rookies shake off the nerves of getting to the big leagues.

“For me personally, I think he (Molina) was just instrumental in getting me to believe in myself that I can pitch up at this level,” Rockies starter Austin Gomber said of Molina.

Then showed former teammates that they still got it in the late stages of their careers.

“I remember when he (Pujols) was with us, he hit a home run here first game back in St. Louis for the first time in a while, and then he had a home run off us our first game we played in this series,” Dodgers outfielder and former MVP Cody Bellinger said of Pujols. “He continues to get it done and it's really, really impressive.”

And in the closing stages of their careers, they’ve left lasting images of players who went out on their own terms.

“These guys are just walking away from the game,” said Braves closer Kenley Jansen, who played with Pujols for the Dodgers in 2021 and pitched to Molina during the 2017 All-Star game in Miami. “They still could play next year, you know. … It's awesome to just witness and see them closely and see how great they’ve succeeded in their careers."

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Related to this story

On Sunday, the unofficial theme of the day was — home. For a man from Puerto Rico and a man from the Dominican Republic, this city in the middle of America is also home. They are eternally welcomed here and forever revered here. Crouched behind home or stoically standing beside it, Molina and Pujols took up residence in St. Louis, where they called home for a combined 31 seasons. Thirty-one. So many home runs and runs crossing home.

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