Cardinals fans give Albert Pujols a rousing welcome at Busch Stadium
The fans rose in unison, waves of red rippling through the seats at Busch Stadium, as Angels first baseman Albert Pujols approached the batters’ box. It had been seven years, seven months and 24 days since he had stood in this spot, digging his cleats into the dirt. An outpouring of gratitude stood between him and his at-bat.
For one minute and 20 seconds — a period of time that might have lasted longer, had Pujols not squared up in the box with the fans still roaring — the St. Louis Cardinals fans saluted Pujols for his 11 years of stardom with the club Friday night. His departure after the 2011 season was acrimonious. The passage of time allowed for affection to replace discontent as Pujols played here for the first time as an Angel.
At the front of the batter’s circle stood Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. He had paused the game so Pujols could bask. Pujols doffed his cap and beamed. Molina returned to the plate and hugged his former teammate. And then Pujols settled into his stance, his head held high, and returned to the business of baseball.
“I was pretty close to dropping a couple of tears there, especially when I hugged Yadi,” Pujols said.
The fans were still standing when St. Louis starter Michael Wacha pumped a 93-mph fastball down the middle. The noise shrank to a hush when Pujols swung, attempting to punish a misplaced pitch as he had so often for the Cardinals. The ball drifted into center field for an out. At 39, in the eighth season of a 10-year, $254-million contract, Pujols can still supply thunder, but no longer does his bat arrive like lightning.
The evening still belonged to him. He notched a hit in his final at-bat, legging out an infield single that delighted the crowd. Seated among the Cardinals faithful were Tony La Russa, who managed Pujols during his tenure here, and Walt Jocketty, who ran the baseball operations department when Pujols arrived in the majors.
The prospect of returning to this ballpark had weighed on Pujols over the past couple weeks. At 4:03 p.m., hours before the game, he rounded a corner on the ground floor of Busch Stadium and walked toward a meeting with the media. He donned a red Angels hoodie and shorts — a hue startlingly similar to the “Cardinal red” he wore for 11 seasons. He greeted a few familiar faces, stopping to embrace former Angels catcher Bengie Molina, who now broadcasts for the Cardinals.
Pujols wore a smile as he settled into his seat.
“I’m not really an emotional guy, but it’s probably going to get to me,” Pujols said. “It’s getting to me now.”
Pujols made the team nine times as a Cardinal. He won two National League MVPs. He finished in the top five 10 times. Even in 2007, when he finished ninth, he led National League in wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. The decade belonged to him.
“I came here as a little boy,” Pujols said. “And I left as a really strong and big man — like a grown man, you know? And a lot of credit I give to players like Jim Edmonds, Placido Polanco, Fernando Vina, Edgar Renteria, Mike Matheny. And the list goes on and on: Larry Walker, Woody Williams.”
In the back of the room was Yadier Molina, the sibling of Bengie and Jose Molina, who was also in attendance in his capacity as the Angels catching coordinator. On multiple occasions, Pujols called Yadier “my little brother.” When Pujols left for the Angels, he filled the clubhouse’s leadership vacuum.
Before the news conference, Molina had FaceTimed Pujols and told him to hurry up. When Pujols finished his remarks, Molina wrapped him in a hug. Then they departed for their separate clubhouses.
“I always root for those guys on that side, because they’re part of my family,” Pujols said. “But this is the only weekend that they probably won’t root for me, and I won’t root for them.”
Only two current members of the Angels were in the major leagues in 2011 — Jonathan Lucroy and Justin Upton.
When he was in high school, Mike Trout marveled at Pujols on TV. “It seemed like every time I turned on ESPN he was hitting homers and making great plays at first, web gems,” Trout said.
For those Angels unfamiliar with Pujols’ legacy, Ausmus said, the reception Friday would suffice as an explanation.
“All the guys here respect everything that Albert has done in his career and the way he continues to go about his business,” Ausmus said. “I would say some of the younger players may not remember how good Albert was when he played for the Cardinals, or maybe they didn’t pay attention to Albert Pujols. Maybe they were too young, maybe they weren’t a National League fan or maybe they had no connection to St. Louis Cardinals baseball.
“But I think when they see how they respond to Albert, I think they’ll get a pretty good sense.”
After Pujols flied out, he led off the fourth inning with a walk. He returned to the plate to start the seventh, as the crowd left their seats for him yet again.
Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos flung a full-count fastball. Pujols tapped it toward third base. The lethargy of the grounder created an opening. Pujols hauled his 235-pound frame, pumping his surgically repaired knees and feet, down the line. He beat the throw from third baseman Matt Carpenter by a step.
The crowd was thrilled by the outcome. After a single by Angels shortstop Luis Renfigo, Ausmus devised a move that was both strategic and theatrical: He pulled Pujols for a pinch-runner.
The substitution permitted one last ovation for Pujols. His steps toward the dugout were slow. He removed his cap and held it aloft. Two more days of this treatment awaited. Pujols appeared delighted by the prospect.
“This is an incredible moment for me tonight,” Pujols said. “It’s something that I’m going put up there with winning the World Series twice here, because it was a pretty special night.”
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