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BenFred: 700 home runs for Albert Pujols, thanks to a magic Cardinals season that isn’t over yet

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Cardinals open series against Dodgers in LA

The Cardinals' Albert Pujols tips his cap to the crowd as he carries away a personalized golf bag to mark his retirement before playing the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 at Dodger Stadium. Pujols would later hit his 699th and 700th home runs.

Let the record show Albert Pujols never doubted Albert Pujols.

Seven hundred? He would need 21 in ‘22. At age 42.

Impossible. Too old and too late. No chance.

Maybe Pujols could manage to pass pariah Alex Rodriguez’s 696 home runs for fourth-place all-time during this sendoff season with the Cardinals. Maybe.

But 700?

“That’s a big number,” said Pujols after he arrived at Cardinals spring training. “But so was 600. And so was 500. And so was 400.”

And so was 700, barreled off his bat Friday night in the fourth inning of another multi-homer game, the first (No. 699) flying off of Dodgers left-hander Andrew Heaney and the second (No. 700) soaring against right-hander Phil Bickford.

  • Pujols has joined Barry Bonds (762), Henry Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as baseball’s only members of the 700 club, proving once again that the combination of the future first-ballot Hall of Famer and a Cardinals uniform can make the impossible a reality that defies even the most optimistic imaginations.

A perfect fit rediscoveredPujols packed 445 home runs into his first 11 seasons with the Cardinals, a marathon of greatness that began with a Rookie of the Year season in 2001 and went on to include nine All-Star appearances, three National League MVPs and two World Series championships. Then, a brutal ending, or so we thought. When Pujols departed as a free agent to the Angels after the 2011 season, it left wounds only time could heal.

As an Angel, Pujols became human.

Without Pujols, the Cardinals could not win another championship.

Scar tissue started healing by the time Pujols returned for the first time as a visitor with the Angels for a 2019 trip that stirred warm feelings on both sides. The Angels’ decision to drop a struggling Pujols in 2021 and the Dodgers’ decision to hand him a part-time role that prioritized his ability to demolish left-handed pitching showed Pujols still had production left to provide. The National League adopted the designated hitter entering 2022, creating the chance for Pujols, then a free agent, to fill a Cardinals need that did not overlap with starting first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

St. Louis and its departed star realigned.

“He’s got some left,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said as a one-year, $2.5 million deal was finalized. “He’s got more than some left.”

“Now,” added catcher Yadier Molina, “we go.”

Pujols returned a little balder up top, a little rounder around the middle, and a little — OK, a lot — slower around the bases. The necklace he wore honoring his 600th home run was a shiny reminder of the milestones he reached with that other team. His hunger for the postseason underscored what his time with the Angels had almost always lacked.

A self-described passenger on the Cardinals’ train instead of the stressed conductor, he made sure to enjoy the scenery. He smiled. He pitched! He wrapped teammates in big bear hugs.

Some things remained unchanged, like the sound of his bat meeting the ball — a sycamore split by a snap of lightning — and the iconic image of his double-finger fist point to the sky every time he stomps on home plate. He had never disappointed Cardinal Nation. He was not about to start.

Like he never left

After Pujols made his 22nd consecutive opening-day start, the plan was maximizing the matchups. But what started as Pujols’ playing time being directly linked to facing left-handed pitching eventually turned into Pujols playing much more regularly because he gave the Cardinals their best chance to win.

His first home run of the season (No. 680) came at home, because of course.

“Welcome back, Albert!” Cardinals TV broadcaster Dan McLaughlin bellowed from his booth. “It’s like you never left!”

The Cardinals beat the Royals 6-5 that day. A pattern began. The 2022 Cardinals won 20 of the first 21 games Pujols homered in. Six of his homers, including No. 699 arrived in two-strike counts. Nine, including No. 700, came with two outs.

Not included are the All-Star homers that sparked him. Pujols, invited to his 11th All-Star Game by commissioner Rob Manfred as a celebration of his remarkable career, was showered with love by the game’s in-their-prime stars. Then he upset top-seeded Kyle Schwarber in the home run derby. Pujols had four home runs when his All-Star inclusion became official. He’s had 17 since, the most recent two at Dodger Stadium, home of the 2022 All-Star game. Hollywood finish, with plenty of time for an encore.

Four times this season, including Friday night, Pujols homered twice in the same game. He gave every National League Central opponent a retirement gift, driving at least one home run over each of their walls during his goodbye tour. He treated Cardinals fans who flocked to see him in Colorado and Arizona and Toronto to homers, too, and their cheers at times made it sound like Busch Stadium relocated.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak kept repeating the same word: “Magic.” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who insisted Pujols’ return was about forging forward as much as it was revisiting sepia-toned memories, watched excitedly along with the fans, sweating it out in the stands. His favorite Pujols homer this season? “There are so many,” DeWitt answered.

Pujols hit them against righties and lefties, in the day and at night, as a starter and off the bench. Some were lasers. Most were arched, some beneath The Arch, like his final at-bat against the Cubs, when he came off the bench as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of a scoreless game and crushed a two-run no-doubter. Pujols had heard Cardinals radio broadcaster Ricky Horton setting the scene as he prepared for the at-bat against Brandon Hughes. Wouldn’t it be cool, Horton suggested, if Pujols hit No. 695 right here? Pujols thought, yes, it sure would be. Then he did it, rounding the bases with a big grin.

Cardinals teammates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, two of the best players in the game, gushed about Pujols like he was Super Man during his second-half surge. Rookies stuck to him like sucker fish, absorbing every morsel of instruction. ESPN’s Chris Berman came back-back-back to Busch Stadium to see Pujols do it one more time, as did Bob Costas, as did Leonel Fernandez, the former president of the Dominican Republic.

Yes, a former president. Pujols once described how he would pick up trash and shine shoes to earn extra cash for his family as a young boy in the Dominican, back before his move to Missouri. Now Fernadez flew in to see him play. Pujols welcomed him by hitting No. 698.

Watching quietly from the press box that same night was Reds executive and former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who gave Mozeliak, then the scouting supervisor, the green light to pursue Pujols as a prospect. Jocketty made no attempt to conceal a smile. For one moment, Jocketty wasn’t a Reds employee. He was just another mesmerized observer.

Who wasn’t?

Not done yet

Ticket sales for Cardinals games spiked when Pujols was signed, and the demand only grew as his chase intensified. He turned a city full of National League fundamentalists into designated-hitting junkies who rushed to record Pujols on their cellphones every time he left the dugout. Pitchers who walked him — and especially the ones who hit him — faced waves of boos. Fans with access to one of the highest perches of One Cardinal Way used their patio to display a blinking sign that tracked his progress. The standing ovations were deafening. The moment of silence right before he decided to swing was stunning. As KTRS sports director Brendan Wiese said, no place on Earth loves a home-run race more than St. Louis.

Pujols’ push for 700 created a St. Louis sensation that can only be compared to Mark McGwire’s home-run chase in 1998, a raucous rush to 70 homers that has since tarnished for some. This was similar, but different, and not just because of how Pujols’ chase will age. The Pujols push included contention. He wasn’t hunting 700 as the Cardinals sagged toward a postseason miss. He helped his team regain control of its division. Other baseball legends returned for final season(s) with their first team, but let’s be clear here. None of them — Pete Rose with the Reds, Reggie Jackson with the Athletics, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki with the Mariners — came close to something like this.

Pujols this season passed Stan Musial for second place all-time in career total bases. He joined Aaron and Ruth as the only hitters to total 2,200 career RBIs. He expanded his list of pitchers homered against to an MLB-record 455, moving into first place on that list with a home run against Ross Detwiler, a Wentzville native who grew up going downtown to watch the Cardinals. Pujols left A-Rod in his dust and unlocked the 700 club door that had been barred for 18 years and limited to just three. No. 5 is now number four.

You really can go home again. Pujols, a Cardinal once more as he always should have been, has 700 home runs. And his biggest swings could be yet to come as the Cardinals try to prove Pujols was the player missing from their championship chase.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon preview a Cardinals-heavy MLB All-Star weekend and discuss why it should motivate the Cardinals to help their chances of a deep playoff push before the trade deadline passes.

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