‘That is how I need my profession to finish’: In magical last season, one final playoff push for Albert Pujols

THE 35-FOOT WALK from the on-deck circle to the batter’s field at Busch Stadium has change into recurring to Albert Pujols. He has made it greater than 2,000 instances all through his profession (4,000 in case you depend the previous place). However one thing about it felt totally different on Sept. 2, when he was introduced as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter in an in any other case nondescript recreation in opposition to the fading Chicago Cubs. The air was a little bit extra crisp, the ambiance more and more extra tense. October was approaching, however it appeared as if your complete metropolis was already there in spirit, anticipating what was on the horizon. Eleven years had handed since Pujols final skilled the attract of postseason baseball in St. Louis, however all of the sudden it was all acquainted once more. In that second, it nearly felt as if he by no means left.

“That night time bought to me,” Pujols stated. “It hit me. The noise — it was totally different.”

The finale of Pujols’ 22-year, Corridor of Fame-worthy baseball profession has typically felt like a lavish dream. He returned to the place the place he grew to become an icon, reached essentially the most distinguished of milestones and, at 42, grew to become a significant contributor on a division champion, taking part in at ranges that not appeared attainable. As he languished via the higher a part of the final decade with the Los Angeles Angels, it typically appeared as if a whole technology would develop up with out ever actually experiencing Pujols’ greatness. After which there it was, one last trace of it on the very finish. “A blessing,” Pujols referred to as it. However the actual prize awaits.

The St. Louis Cardinals start their march via the postseason on Friday, internet hosting the Philadelphia Phillies in a best-of-three wild-card sequence. Pujols has spent the 2022 season pushed largely by the prospect of hoisting the World Collection trophy as a Cardinal for a 3rd and last time, retiring alongside his beloved pal Yadier Molina with ski goggles over their eyes and champagne bottles of their arms. However the alternative is simply as vital because the reward. No matter what occurs, Pujols believes he has already received.

“That is how I need my profession to finish — with the followers, with the town, within the postseason,” Pujols instructed ESPN on a latest morning in San Diego. “Man, I would not change a factor.”

PUJOLS’ FINAL SEASON feels much more unbelievable when you think about its unlikelihood.

In 2021, Pujols mainly rebranded himself in a span of 5 months, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers across the center of Could — days after the Angels launched him — and establishing himself as a clubhouse mentor and a lefty masher. Thriving on an elite, adorned Dodgers crew and taking part in significant, high-intensity video games in entrance of a rabid fan base allowed Pujols to faucet again into an vitality that was typically missing as he wasted away on Angels groups that regularly went nowhere. However by the next spring, he was exhausted.

He had performed deep into October for the primary time in 10 years, then spent a stint within the Dominican Republic taking part in winter ball, making good on a promise to the followers of his residence nation. When February got here and went, and the homeowners and gamers nonetheless hadn’t come to phrases on a brand new collective bargaining settlement, Pujols wasn’t sure he’d ever play once more. Then the lockout was lifted on March 10, a common designated hitter was agreed to as a part of it, and Pujols’ agent, Dan Lozano, implored him to return again.

“Danny,” Pujols recalled saying, “I am freaking burned. I am drained.”

However Pujols got here round to the concept, consulted along with his youngsters and bought their blessing. Fifteen days later, he stated, he had gives from three groups — however the Cardinals weren’t one among them. Then their supervisor, Oliver Marmol, referred to as.

It was a Friday. Pujols was in San Diego watching one among his daughters, Sophia, compete in a gymnastics meet on the conference heart close to Petco Park.

“You in form?” Marmol requested.

“Wanna FaceTime to see?” Pujols responded.

However Marmol, at that time 35 years previous and heading into his first season as a significant league supervisor, did not want convincing. As spring coaching was winding down, he had pored over the roster with Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker and determined it might be too dangerous to depend so closely on getting offense from the inexperienced Juan Yepez. A seasoned, right-handed-hitting DH was wanted, and Pujols, Marmol thought, certified as an excellent match. However Opening Day was in lower than two weeks, and Pujols wanted to get into camp if he wished to play. He’d quickly be flying to satisfy with the opposite groups, he instructed Marmol, and so the Cardinals wanted to make one thing occur quick.

Later that day, Marmol made his pitch to Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, who nonetheless wanted time to assume it over. There was lingering concern in regards to the match and the complexities of dealing with the ultimate levels of an icon’s profession. However by Sunday morning, Mozeliak started to return round. The Cardinals wrapped up a spring coaching recreation in opposition to the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Florida, later that afternoon. As Mozeliak hit site visitors on his manner again to Jupiter, he determined to name Pujols himself.

Pujols and Mozeliak had what Mozeliak described as an amicable reunion when the Angels performed in St. Louis in 2019, however this certified as their first cellphone dialog since Pujols departed as a free agent within the winter of 2011. Mozeliak wished to ensure there was no lingering dangerous blood, that Pujols was invested in one other full season of baseball and that he genuinely wished to be a Cardinal once more. Pujols disclosed that he had gives to play elsewhere however expressed what it might imply to reunite with Molina and Adam Wainwright and end his profession in a clubhouse with Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, in a metropolis with individuals who nonetheless adored him. Mozeliak was satisfied.

At round 8 p.m., Mozeliak and Lozano hashed out the small print of what grew to become a one-year, $2.5 million contract. Pujols hopped on a red-eye flight hours later and was on the sector, in full uniform, by Monday afternoon, rising from the right-field nook to a standing ovation. One of many final hurdles between Mozeliak and Lozano hadn’t been cash; it was about what would occur if all of it went poorly.

“I simply wished to know, ‘Might there be an exit ramp?'” Mozeliak recalled. “Fortunately we by no means even needed to discover it.”

PUJOLS WAS SLASHING solely .215/.301/.376 by the All-Star break, producing a .676 OPS that stood 81 factors under the league common. Then, within the second half, he hit like an MVP, batting .323/.388/.715 with 18 residence runs, 48 RBIs and a 1.103 OPS that ranked second amongst these with a minimum of 150 plate appearances — barely forward of Mike Trout, barely behind Aaron Choose.

Schumaker, his teammate with the Cardinals from 2005 to 2011, believes being invited to the All-Star Recreation on July 19 and getting acknowledged by his friends “may need rejuvenated” Pujols. However one thing extra tangible had occurred just a few days earlier.

Pujols started toying with the concept of beginning his arms barely decrease and holding the bat marginally extra upright so as to shorten his path via the strike zone and doubtlessly sync up extra constantly with the excessive leg kick he had begun incorporating extra repeatedly the prior summer time. Pujols stated he tried it throughout a pinch-hitting look in opposition to the Atlanta Braves on July 4, then used it in a begin in opposition to Max Fried two days later. He produced two hits and determined to keep it up. The tweak is hardly distinguishable on video, particularly to the untrained eye, however it’s a notable change for a person who has been meticulously sculpting his swing since childhood.

“It is only a feeling, bro,” Pujols stated. “It is all about feeling.”

From Aug. 10-22, in a stretch of 29 plate appearances, Pujols homered seven instances, the identical complete he produced via the season’s first 4 months.

On Aug. 10 in Colorado, he culminated a four-hit night time with a house run.

On Aug. 14, in entrance of a near-capacity crowd in St. Louis, and in opposition to a Milwaukee Brewers crew that was solely a half-game behind within the NL Central, he homered twice, the final of which broke the sport open within the eighth, triggering an emphatic “That is our home!” declaration earlier than he bounded across the bases.

On Aug. 18 at residence, he notched his first profession pinch-hit grand slam.

On Aug. 20 in Phoenix, he homered twice.

On Aug. 22 in Chicago, he homered on a fastball degree along with his head, producing the sport’s solely run.

Instantly, 700 residence runs, a milestone that at varied factors appeared unattainable, was inside attain. His profession mark stood at 693 heading into the common season’s final six weeks.

Pujols had been a drive when dealing with lefties, in opposition to whom he slashed .393/.460/.964 after the All-Star break. However he additionally produced at elite ranges in opposition to righties. And in the course of the stretch run, the Cardinals, who elevated their division lead by 4 video games throughout Pujols’ August surge, relied on him as an on a regular basis presence close to the center of the lineup.

He by no means seemed again. Pujols produced an .839 OPS over the following 32 days, a stretch that ended with the two-homer night time that produced No. 700 in Los Angeles on Sept. 23. He homered three extra instances over his final 5 video games, ending his season with a .270/.345/.550 slash line and 24 residence runs in 109 video games. His adjusted OPS, of 154, was his highest in a dozen years.

“It actually seems to be like he is in his 20s once more,” Pujols’ oldest son, AJ, stated. “He is so joyful proper now. I can simply inform.”

ON THE FRONT traces of Pujols’ success this yr has been Chris Conroy, an assistant athletic coach for the Cardinals who has acted as one of many sport’s most vital curators of historical past. Ten years in the past, on the request of former Cardinals supervisor Mike Matheny, Conroy started amassing vital baseballs and marking them with their milestones, assuming a job beforehand crammed by longtime coach Barry Weinberg. He figured he’d make them look good, so he discovered a e-book on handwriting, purchased a particular pen and got here up with what he describes as “some bastardized model of calligraphy” to notice particular dates and numbers and context.

This season — given Pujols’ feats, the historical past between Molina and Wainwright as a battery, and the 13 rookies who debuted for the Cardinals — Conroy estimates writing on one thing within the neighborhood of fifty baseballs. For Pujols alone, he believes, it is a few dozen.

The spotlight, after all, was residence run No. 700, a milestone beforehand solely reached by Aaron, Ruth and Barry Bonds. However that baseball wasn’t retrieved. Pujols additionally surpassed Bonds to set a brand new file for essentially the most residence runs in opposition to totally different pitchers, now at 458, and essentially the most go-ahead homers since 1961, now at 263. He reached 2,200 RBIs, 3,000 video games, 1,900 runs and 1,400 extra-base hits, all of which deserved keepsakes.

“It is unbelievable,” Conroy stated. “There’s at all times one thing.”

However Pujols’ last season has been outlined simply as a lot by moments because it has been by milestones. Like double-high-fiving Nelly or pitching in his first recreation or being surrounded by fellow All-Stars in the midst of the House Run Derby or strolling off the sector with Molina and Wainwright by his aspect within the residence finale. Like the 2 crying Cardinals followers who embraced after watching him hit No. 696 or one Pirates fan who Pujols instructed to carry on to No. 697 to commemorate her father’s passing or the tens of hundreds of Dodger followers who saluted him within the hours earlier than he’d join on No. 700.

Like the handfuls of teammates whose careers have been formed by his steering this season.

“I am telling you that in case you go to each participant, they’re going to have a narrative about how he impacted them this yr — bringing them into the cage, sitting him down, telling him, ‘What are you considering on the bases?’ ‘What are you considering on the market on the infield?'” Schumaker stated. “It isn’t solely on the offensive aspect; it is defensively and baserunning, pitch-tipping from our personal pitchers. It is each man.”

THERE HAVE BEEN instances this season when Pujols has noticeably struggled to comprise his feelings, a rarity for a person hailed as “The Machine.” After he belted his 700th residence run at Dodger Stadium — the place that in some ways resurrected his profession — he discovered a hallway outdoors the guests’ dugout so the cameras would not catch him crying. Ten days later, in an on-field ceremony honoring him and Molina, the tears practically flowed once more as he addressed his 5 youngsters seated behind him.

Pujols grew to become one of many biggest hitters in baseball historical past via unrelenting self-discipline and focus, infrequently deviating from what resided immediately in entrance of him. It was at all times this rep and this pitch and this at-bat, nothing else. This yr, although, he has made some extent of taking a step again to see the larger image. To understand the distinctiveness of this second, to note how the followers have rallied round it — to comprehend that it is nearly over.

“It is coming in the direction of the top,” Pujols stated. “A 37-year profession taking part in baseball, since I used to be 5 years previous, and we’re gonna put an finish on it. I am certain there’s gonna be some emotion operating via me, via my household, however on the similar time it is only a blessing.”

A little bit greater than six months in the past and a little bit greater than 4 minutes into his opening press convention as a member of the Cardinals, Pujols declared that this may be his last season within the main leagues. He held off on such pronouncements in 2021, despite the fact that it marked the top of the10-year, $240 million contract he initially signed with the Angels. However he wished to do it early in 2022 for one easy purpose: to protect himself in opposition to the temptation of coming again.

Endings are often sloppy, even for the inner-circle Corridor of Famers. Babe Ruth spent his last season with the Boston Braves and did not play past Could. Willie Mays stumbled within the outfield as a Met to cap an in any other case good profession. Hank Aaron was a .229 hitter who performed in solely 85 video games in his last yr in Milwaukee. Ken Griffey Jr.’s profession ended when he left the Seattle Mariners‘ clubhouse one early June and drove throughout the nation with out informing anybody.

However Pujols prefers to give attention to those who discovered one final push. He introduced up David Ortiz, one among his closest mates within the sport, who completed sixth in MVP voting in his twentieth and last season in 2016. He envisioned the same path for himself and located gas within the many who did not imagine he may observe it.

“There’s nothing that satisfies me greater than that — when individuals doubt me and I show them flawed,” Pujols stated. “I get a little bit snicker out of it, as a result of I do know what I am able to doing once I’m wholesome on this recreation.”

He believes he may preserve taking part in, however he is additionally at peace — each with the way it’s gone and the place it is going.

“I can inform you that I can put my thoughts into subsequent yr and put together myself and I can nonetheless play two or three extra years if I wish to,” Pujols stated. “However I am drained. I am executed. That is it. That is the place Albert Pujols’ profession ends.”

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