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BenFred: Albert Pujols, Cardinals reunion leads Top 10 St. Louis sports stories of 2022

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The ugly truth about sports goodbyes is they are so often, well, ugly.

The same strengths that forge greats — their drive to keep trying, their urge to prove doubters wrong, their belief they can and will prevail despite Father Time’s undefeated record — can and often do become weaknesses toward the end.

Careers end in injury. They end in slumps that make contracts untenable. They end in sudden retirements meant to save face, or returns from retirements that flop, Tom Brady style.

But every once in a while, a nearly perfect sports ending does occur, and it will be hard to find a better example than the one Albert Pujols and the Cardinals shared in 2022.

For that reason, No. 5 is No. 1.

Here is your 2022 edition of the Post-Dispatch’s biggest sports stories of the year ...

1. Sendoff seasons for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina becomes Pujols Palooza

Pittsburgh Pirates vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals greats Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina enjoy their pre-game on field ceremony honoring the future Baseball Hall of Famers before the start of a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. 

As a series of required circumstances started to align, it became obvious last offseason there was a chance for the Cardinals and Pujols to reunite for one sendoff season — if both parties were interested. The future Hall of Famer had been dropped by the Angels, rejuvenated by the Dodgers, and weaponized by the National League’s embrace of the designated hitter in a new collective bargaining agreement that salvaged the 2022 season. Pujols, 42, eagerly accepted what started out as a part-time DH role in order to chase his 700th home run in St. Louis. He then turned back the hands of time, reminding the world of his decade-plus of dominance with the Cardinals the first time around.

After nearly walking away during a first-half slump, Pujols was selected by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred as an All-Star to celebrate his Cooperstown-worthy career. It sparked him. He knocked Kyle Schwarber from the Home Run Derby and kept knocking. He was one of the hottest hitters in the game after the break, averaging .319 and slugging .698 following the news of his All-Star selection. Twenty of his season’s 24 home runs, the most he had clobbered since 2016, came after the All-Star announcement. Pujols finished with 703 career home runs, passing Alex Rodriguez (696) for fourth place on the all-time home run list before joining Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club. Pujols’ .270 average was his highest since 2014. His .345 on-base percentage was his highest since 2011. His .550 slugging percentage was his highest since 2010.

Fortunately, the Pujols party — all provided by a modest $2.5 million one-year deal — overshadowed a rocky sendoff season for future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina. The catcher arrived to spring training late and departed the team twice during the regular season, once to go watch his Puerto Rican basketball team win a championship. But Molina was still the Cardinals’ best option behind the plate, and he performed better the closer the Cardinals got to the postseason. He and Adam Wainwright, who now enters his own sendoff season, set a new record (328) for career starts together between battery mates. Let the record show that Molina, like Pujols, got a hit in his final postseason at-bat, and he did it with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth.

Former Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, signed this offseason to a five-year, $87.5 million deal, will now attempt to put his own signature on the catcher position.

It will take a collection of bats to replicate Pujols’ stunning production.

2. Nazem Kadri collision alters course for Blues

Blues Avalanche Hockey

Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) celebrates a goal against St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington (50) during the third period in Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Denver. 

How you feel about the Rorschach test of hockey hits sustained by goalie Jordan Binnington during the third game of a second-round series against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Avalanche probably depends on which team you wanted to see win. The impact Binnington’s series-ending knee injury made is less debatable. The Blues were 4-1 in the playoffs after Binnington reclaimed his starting role from Ville Husso, and they were tied a game a piece with Colorado when a locked-in Binnington was bounced early in a Game 3 loss that swung the series. Avalanche center Nazem Kadri was not penalized for the shove of Blues defenseman Calle Rosen into Binnington’s net. He saw a chance to get a body on an X-factor of a goalie, took it and hit the jackpot. The Avalanche rolled. The Blues haven’t looked very threatening since. They’re a team in transition, knocked there by Kadri.

3. Paul Goldschmidt snaps Cardinals’ MVP drought

Cardinals 11, Reds 3

Cardinals infielder Paul Goldschmidt is congratulated by teammates on Saturday, July 16, 2022, after hitting his 300th home in the second inning of a game against the Reds at Busch Stadium.

A season so often starring Pujols just so happened to produce the Cardinals’ first NL MVP since Pujols. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt‘s age-34 season secured his first NL MVP and the Cardinals’ first since Pujols did it in 2009. Despite a September to not remember, two-time MVP runner-up Goldschmidt claimed 22 of 30 first-place votes from the writers. His teammate, third baseman Nolan Arenado, finished third behind Manny Machado of the Padres, then gave the Cardinals great (but expected) news when he chose against opting out of his contract to pursue free agency. Goldschmidt led the NL in slugging percentage (.578) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.981) while continuing his always-stellar defense and baserunning. His 35 home runs led his team. That total did not include the one hit by the seven-time All-Star during the All-Star game.

4. CityPark flips the switch

First game at CityPark

St. Louis City SC's City2 players thank the fans after a friendly match against Bayer Leverkusen at CityPark in St. Louis on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

On a frigid November night, years of work dedicated to bringing Major League Soccer to St. Louis culminated in the grand opening of CityPark, the downtown, soccer-specific stadium MLS expansion team St. Louis City SC will call home. Developmental team City2’s 3-0 friendly loss to Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen was a win in every way that actually counted, as fans were introduced to picture-perfect grass, local food offerings throughout the stadium, and not one bad seat in the venue. A coaching staff is in place. A roster is mostly set. A big year for soccer in St. Louis — local products making the United States’ World Cup roster; great college seasons from SLU to Maryville; and impressive performances from City SC youth, academy and MLS Next teams — helped set the stage for 2023. The big club’s MLS home opener against Charlotte FC is set for March 4.

5. Dennis Gates sparks Mizzou hoops

Braggin' Rights go to Mizzou with a 93-71 win over Illinois

Mizzou player surround the Braggin' Rights trophy and coach Dennis Gates after beating Illinois 93-71 on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022 at Enterprise Center. 

Missouri athletics director Desiree Reed-Francois made a tough call when she fired friend Cuonzo Martin following an alarming fifth season that produced just 11 wins. In came Dennis Gates of Cleveland State in a wave of six new hires across the SEC. So far? More than good. Potentially great. Gates’ revamped roster and Martin-era holdover Kobe Brown have surpassed last season’s win total — in just 13 games. The Tigers enter 2023 with a 12-1 record and back-to-back lopsided wins against No. 16 Illinois and No. 19 Kentucky. Goodbye NIT hopes. Hello NCAA Tournament talk.

6. New manager Oli Marmol makes his mark

Cardinals take on Royals in re-scheduled game

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, center, talks with run production coach Patrick Elkins, left, and first base coach Stubby Clapp before the start of a game against the Royals at Busch Stadium on Monday, May 2, 2022. 

The Cardinals desperately needed a uniting presence following the messy split between former manager Mike Shildt and the front office. Promoting bench coach Oli Marmol to the big chair proved to be the right call. Marmol, 36, did more than lead the Cardinals to their 15th consecutive winning season. He reclaimed the NL Central for the first time since 2019, won more games (93) than any Cardinals manager since Mike Matheny in 2015 (100), and received consideration for the NL Manager of the Year Award. Marmol was too slow to pull All-Star closer Ryan Helsley in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series, but he got a lot more right than wrong in a debut season that often featured his refreshing blunt honesty. Driving the Cardinals deeper into the postseason is his next challenge. The Cardinals have been knocked out of three consecutive wild-card settings and have a 1-5 record in those games since 2020. Including the Nationals’ NLCS sweep in 2019, the Cardinals have one single win in an NLCS since 2014. It’s beneath the brand.

7. Mizzou football remains mediocre after Eli Drinkwitz’s new deal

Missouri Auburn Football

Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz walks the field before the start of an NCAA college football game against Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 in Auburn, Ala.

Despite a 17-19 record that now includes defeats in consecutive bowl games, Mizzou football coach Eli Drinkwitz scored a significant raise and contract extension during a third season that finished at 6-7. Drinkwitz’s salary will increase from $4 million to $6 million, with incremental raises bringing him to $7 million by the extension’s end in 2027. Newly inducted National Football Foundation Hall of Famer Gary Pinkel never made that much. Not even close. The curators in CoMo who pushed through Drinkwitz’s new deal are apparently plenty pleased. Are fans, though? What about the AD, Reed-Francois? So far support is showing in the form of ticket sales and attendance, but winning seasons, Top-25 rankings and forward traction in an improving SEC East are musts now. It’s time. Meanwhile, second-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema won eight games before his Illini kicked off their bowl game against Mississippi State.

8. XFL replants football flag in STL

BattleHawks' first game in St. Louis

BattleHawks safety Kenny Robinson, center, is surrounded by teammates after making an interception against the New York Guardians in and XFL game on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020 in The Dome at America's Center in St. Louis. (David Carson,

Like a phoenix from the ashes, the Battlehawks returned. New owners. New league. No more capital H in the name. But The Dome will once again host football for those interested in an NFL alternative. New XFL owners Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia kept The Lou on their list of must-have cities after buying the shuttered spring league from Vince McMahon. Time will tell if this edition of the XFL, one much more closely aligned with the NFL instead of pretending to be a competitor to it, will capture the same fan interest here. Former St. Louis Rams tight end Anthony Becht is a high-energy head coach who promises a thrilling product. The home opener will be announced soon.

9. SLU Billikens hoops drops the ball

Murray St Saint Louis Basketball

Saint Louis head coach Travis Ford is seen on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Murray State Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Billikens men’s basketball coach Travis Ford‘s seventh season in Midtown was supposed to be his best. He has a roster loaded with talent and depth and spearheaded by point guard Yuri Collins, who stiff-armed the transfer portal to stay home. And yet, the Billikens so often look something between flat and dysfunctional. After an impressive early win against Memphis, the Billikens lost five non-conference games, the worst of which came at home to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, an opponent SLU paid to blow an 18-point second-half lead against. Ford has made just one NCAA Tournament at SLU. Because the A-10’s non-conference performance was so unimpressive, a conference tournament championship is likely the only ticket to the big dance now. If the Billikens can’t get there with this group, is it time to consider a change?

10. Another gold jacket for a St. Louis Ram

Hall of Fame Football

Dick Vermeil, left, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022, celebrates after receiving his jacket during the gold jacket dinner in Canton, Ohio, Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. Former Ram Kurt Warner looks on. 

In a shocking twist, Dick Vermeil didn’t cry. At least not during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech. Fourteen seasons after walking away from his restoration of the Eagles due to burnout, Vermeil returned in 1997 to lead the St. Louis Rams from the wilderness. It took some time, but in 1999, The Greatest Show on Turf propelled the Rams from worst, to first. Vermeil’s prolific coaching career included accomplishments elsewhere, but none bigger than his Rams beating Jeff Fisher’s Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Honorable Mentions: World Wide Technology Raceway hosts successful inaugural NASCAR Cup series race, down to Enjoy Illinois 300 winner Joey Logano’s final push for first. ... St. Louis native Jayson Tatum leads his Celtics to NBA Finals. ... Lindenwood makes the jump to Division I. ... Blues ink coach Craig Berube to extension and GM Doug Armstrong defends him during this season’s bumpy start. ... Mozeliak’s trade-deadline moves – including the trade of fan favorite Harrison Bader to the Yankees – add two difference-makers to the rotation in Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana. ... Cardinals coaching staff turnover includes departures of controversial hitting coach Jeff Albert.

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