Waiting for the Man
The legacy of Albert Pujols
When I was a kid, my favorite baseball player was Ozzie Smith. He played shortstop as I did. He was small, fast, and had a golden glove. I was small, not terribly fast, and used a hand-me-down glove that I loved. I didn’t throw super balls against the back door and catch them in my glove for hours on end (that was my brother), but I did pretend to be Ozzie on more than one occasion standing between second and third.
Much later in life and after Ozzie had retired, my new favorite player in a Cardinals uniform was Albert Pujols. I can honestly say he was the greatest professional baseball player I have ever seen live and in person. He was otherworldly.
When Pujols left the Cardinals practically a decade ago, I was crushed. I understand this is a business and I understand leaving for a payday so astronomical that he couldn’t say no is how the other part of the game goes.
I also knew the Cardinals and Cardinals fans had him at his finest.
Now here we are at a moment I hardly believed possible. One of the greatest baseball players ever is being designated for assignment in the last year of his historic 10-year, $253 million deal, which included a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract once his playing days were over. Albert Pujols might have played his last professional baseball game.
For a fleeting moment, I had a vision of Albert Pujols reuniting with Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. I remembered what happened in 2019 when the Angels finally visited St. Louis. The crowd went nuts. Every at-bat was a standing ovation. He hugged Yadi at the plate. He even hit a home run against the Cardinals and the fans in the stands cheered. It made me long for a return. Some way Albert could put on that old #5 jersey. The one with the birds on the bat? Wouldn’t that be something special?
I think it would be.
Still, I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. I looked up his stats for this season and they aren’t otherworldly anymore. He’s hit only five home runs. Of course, that doesn’t take away his career accomplishments such as 667 homers, 2,112 RBIs, and 669 doubles. For a guy who never really could run all that well he has 1,352 extra-base hits.
No one with those numbers should end his career designated for assignment.
So, back to my fleeting thought. Should the Cardinals sign Albert Pujols?
No. Absolutely. Probably not. Maybe? I don’t know.
I don’t know because I don’t know what’s in Albert’s heart. I would guess he still wants to play. Does he want to play every day? Can his pride handle being a right-handed bench bat and occasional first baseman?
If that’s the case, he should come play for the Cardinals. It’s not like he hasn’t kept St. Louis close at hand. He has a house in St. Louis. The national headquarters of the Pujols Family Foundation is still in St. Louis. Molina and Wainwright are in St. Louis. I’m sure many of his favorite baseball memories are in St. Louis. Frankly, it’s where he cemented his Hall of Fame career and it’s the place where he will always be associated with, not to diminish his playing days in an Angels uniform.
I think there’s likely a spot on the 26-man roster for Albert Pujols. How can there not be? But only if he embraces a smaller role. It’s even worse because there’s stupidly no designated hitter in National League. I’m not even counting the simple fact that the Cardinals already have one of the best first basemen in Paul Goldschmidt. Can Pujols handle spot starts?
He’d have to be okay with being a bench player. Not just for the Cardinals, but for anybody thinking of signing him. My gut says if he can handle sitting on the bench hanging with Waino and Yadi, teaching a bit with younger players, playing a bit, and enjoying the adulation of Cardinal fans, he’ll come back.
The word “if” is doing a lot of work there.
I would expect Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak would love to fill seats in Busch Stadium post-pandemic. Signing Pujols would do that. The excitement that would generate would be astronomical. Fans would love it. Major League Baseball would love it.
Maybe Cards skipper Mike Shildt would love it too? He’d have a decent bat off the bench. A guy who still hits the ball hard. Pujols might even help the team win? Maybe it’s all just wishful thinking.
I remember when Ozzie Smith was slowly being phased out of playing every day. He wanted to play but he just wasn’t quite good enough anymore. Age has a way of telling you it’s time to move on. Maybe it’s time for Albert Pujols to move on too. He’ll always be “El Hombre” in St. Louis just like Ozzie will always be “The Wizard.”
The reality is Pujols finding his way back to St. Louis in 2019 was the real end. There was a bittersweetness to it that you don’t get with other sports. It was the last hurrah. It was magic.
How long would that magic last with Pujols as a bench player? How long before fans would start to resent him taking up a roster spot?
I don’t know the percentages, but I’d guess it’s low Pujols is playing professional baseball anywhere in the next few days. He’s likely retiring and that feels like a sad end especially since he desperately wants to still play.
We’ll know soon enough.
I can still see Pujols coming back to St. Louis in some capacity. How can he not? Cardinal fans love their former players after retirement. I can see him as next year’s hitting coach imparting his knowledge and secure in his continued adoration in St. Louis. It wouldn’t be an end. It would be a transition.
If it’s not in the cards for one more go swinging the bat in St. Louis, let it be teaching the next generation how to swing that bat and leave the game with dignity, honor, and the respect of millions.