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The End of an Era: Albert Pujols Walks Away

Cardinals IF/DH Albert Pujols; Photo via Barbara Moore

3,364 hits, 695 home runs, 2,193 RBI, 3 MVPs, 2 rings, and 23 years ago, Albert Pujols was just a young Dominican-American kid on nobody’s radar. Pujols, who in one season at Maple Woods Community College in Missouri batted .461 with 22 home runs, entered the 1999 MLB Draft not as a top prospect, but as a deep sleeper. Albert’s career as a professional baseball player sat in limbo until the St. Louis Cardinals finally pulled the trigger and selected him in the 13th round with the 402nd pick of the draft. One $60,000 signing bonus later, Albert Pujols was a Cardinal.

Originally assigned to the single-A Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League, Pujols began his career playing third base. In 2000, with Peoria, he hit .324 with 17 home runs and 84 RBI across 109 ball games. For his trouble, Pujols was named the Midwest League MVP and an All-Star. Albert eventually rose to high-A ball with the Potomac Cannons of the Carolina League, where he hit .284 with 2 home runs and 10 RBIs in 21 games. Pujols ended 2000 with a promotion to the triple-A Memphis Redbirds, where he appeared in three regular season games and was placed on the postseason roster. In the playoffs, he hit for a .367 average and was declared the Pacific Coast League’s Postseason MVP.

After his meteoric rise through the minor leagues, Pujols made the Cardinals 2001 roster with the intention of playing all over the diamond. He recorded his first of over 3,000 career hits on Opening Day when he laced a single off the left arm of two-time All-Star Mike Hampton. The young Cardinals star only grew from there, as Pujols became the first Cardinal rookie to be named an All-Star in over 40 years. He would finish the year with a .329 average, 37 home runs, and 130 RBIs. Pujols, who played games at third base, first base, left field, and right field, was named the National League’s Silver Slugger at third base and was unanimously voted the league’s Rookie of the Year. Albert would also finish fourth in MVP voting, behind Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Luis Gonzalez.

Albert Pujols would remain with St. Louis for 10 more seasons, never finishing a season worse than 9th in MVP voting. In 2005, 2008, and 2009, he was named National League MVP. He was an All-Star on 8 more occasions, including every year from 2003 to 2010. After transitioning to first base, he became a Gold Glove recipient in 2006 and 2010. On six occasions Albert was honored as a Silver Slugger. Pujols won the National League Hank Aaron Award in 2003 and 2009, was the NL Batting Champion in 2003, the NL home run leader in 2009 and 2010, and the NL RBI leader in 2010. Most notably, in 2008, Pujols was given Major League Baseball’s highest honor, the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who, "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team.” Pujols and the Cardinals also climbed the mountain as World Series Champions in 2006 and 2011.

The 2011-2012 offseason saw a seismic shakeup to the baseball landscape as Albert Pujols hit the open market as a free agent. According to Deidre Pujols, Albert’s wife, the couple was originally prepared to accept significantly less money to stay in St. Louis. However, they felt “insulted” when the club offered a five-year contract. Eventually, the Cardinals came with an offer of 10 years for $210 million, matching the length offered by Miami and the Los Angeles Angels. Ultimately, at age 31, Pujols took his talents to the West Coast, inking a 10-year, $254 million deal with the Angels.

Pujols’ trip to California proved to be disappointing. In ten seasons with the Angels, he only finished inside the top 20 in American League MVP voting twice and was named an All-Star on only one occasion, 2015. Pujols’ Angels tenure did feature some incredible milestones, however, as he notched his 3,000 Major League hit on May 4, 2018.

Albert’s time with the Angels came to an abrupt end nearly three years later. On May 6, 2021, he was designated for assignment and became a free agent. In 1,181 games as an Angel, Pujols hit .256 with a .311 on-base percentage, 222 home runs, 783 RBI, and an OPS of .758. He finished the 2021 season up the road with the Los Angeles Dodgers. As a Dodger, he hit .254 with a .299 OBP and an .860 OPS across 85 games. The Dodgers also gave Albert his first postseason appearance since 2014. He appeared in nine games throughout playoffs, hitting .278.

In late March of this year, Pujols announced that, at age 42, he will take one more trip around the big leagues before retiring, and it will be back home with the St. Louis Cardinals. The return to St Louis felt natural to both Pujols and the organization, with Albert saying, “There were a lot of teams interested (this offseason). It took 12 hours, maybe even less to get a deal done once we received a call from the Cardinals.” While going back to the Cardinals provides a feel-good ending, Pujols returned to the team to try to help bring a championship to St. Louis. Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said, “I don't think you can script it any better. It's one thing if you were doing it as just a nod for the fans, but that's not the case here. We talked about it quite a bit. You’re also bringing in the guy that's really looking forward to helping this team win a championship. So, the fact that he gets to do it where he started is special.”

Despite a sluggish first half, Pujols is contributing to the Cardinals playoff push. In the twilight of his career, Pujols has become a lefty-slayer for the Cards. Against left-handed pitchers in 2022, Pujols is hitting .370 with 12 home runs, a .412 on-base percentage, and an 1.202 OPS. In contrast, Pujols has been dismal against pitchers of his handedness, hitting a mere .191, with 4 home runs, a .293 on-base percentage, and an OPS of .609.

Pujols has also been engaged in a race for personal history. Only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth have mashed over 700 career home runs. Pujols clubbed his 695th on Sunday against the Chicago Cubs. He will need to hit 5 more bombs over the next month to join this exclusive club, leading some to question if he would consider returning for another shot next season should he fall short of the milestone. Pujols has dispelled these thoughts, saying to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, “I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,’’ Pujols also told USA TODAY Sports, “I don’t get caught up in numbers. If you were going to tell me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have told you that you’re freakin’ crazy. My career has been amazing. If I can’t hit 700 homers, I’m not coming back. No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement this was it when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.’’Whether Pujols finds five more home runs remains to be seen. However, the last 22 years have made one thing very clear - do not bet against him.

This fall, when Albert Pujols walks off the field and down the dugout steps one final time, he will step right into immortality in the halls of a red brick building on the shores of Lake Oswego in the village of Cooperstown, New York. A career nothing short of spectacular will come to a close, but his legacy and impact on the Cardinals and the game as a whole will never be forgotten.



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