Albert Pujols is usually reluctant to discuss the significant milestones of his career, such as the 600th homer he hit last season or the 3,000th hit he collected in early May, until he reaches them.
But the Angels slugger and future Hall of Famer was happy to make an exception this week when asked if he knew who he was about to catch and pass for seventh place on baseball’s all-time runs batted in list.
“Yes,” Pujols said, a huge grin erasing the game face he often wears, even three hours before first pitch. “Stan the Man.”
Pujols has 1,950 RBIs entering Friday night’s game at Minnesota. The next run he drives in will tie him with Stan Musial, a Hall of Famer and former St. Louis Cardinals great who hit .331 with 475 homers and 1,951 RBIs during a 22-year career with the same organization that developed Pujols.
Pujols, 38, joined Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez as the only members of baseball’s exclusive 600-homer, 3,000-hit club last month, and the three-time National League most valuable player and two-time World Series champion has already etched his name among the game’s immortals.
But there is something more personal, more meaningful, about passing Musial, a man Pujols developed a close relationship with despite their 60-year age difference while Pujols played for the Cardinals from 2001 to 2011.
“It’s pretty special, man,” Pujols said. “He was a guy I had a lot of respect for. To me, it wasn’t just the man he was on the field and the things he accomplished. It was the man he was off the field, the things he did for this country. It puts a smile on my face every time I think about him or someone mentions his name.”
Musial was known for his grace and sportsmanship — he was never ejected by an umpire — and he had a special bond with Cardinals fans during a career that spanned from 1941 to 1963. He sat out the 1945 season while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Musial remained closely connected to the team until his death in 2013 at age 92. In 2011, President Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Every time Musial came to the park, Pujols made a point of speaking to him, and not just about hitting.
“What I mostly took away from him was how he cared about people, how humble he was,” Pujols said. “We all hang up this jersey one day, but at the end of the day, bro, those are the memories that you take, and nobody can take them away from you. That’s something I’ll cherish forever.”
Pujols developed such a reverence for Musial that he felt uncomfortable early in his career when St. Louis writers started calling him “El Hombre.”
When Pujols signed a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Angels before the 2012 season, the team launched a billboard campaign featuring Pujols as “El Hombre.” Pujols asked the Angels to take them down.
“You had to know and respect his place in history,” Pujols said of Musial. “I wasn’t feeling comfortable because there was somebody I respect who had already earned that name. Even though his was in English and mine was in Spanish, it has the same meaning. For me, it was somebody I honored.”
Like Musial, who batted .283 with an .835 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and averaged 15 homers and 63 RBIs over his final five seasons, Pujols is no longer the feared slugger he was in his prime.
He’s batting .252 with a .691 OPS, eight homers and 32 RBIs in 56 games, a slight improvement over his .241 average and .672 OPS in 2017.
But Pujols, thanks to better health and a winter conditioning program that helped him lose 15-20 pounds, has been able to start 35 games at first base after foot injuries relegated him to 34 games in the field in the last two years.
That has freed up the DH spot for two-way star Shohei Ohtani to bat four or five times a week.
“I’m holding up, man I feel pretty good,” said Pujols, who sat out two games against the Kansas City Royals this week because of a sore left knee but is expected to return Friday. “It was like riding a bike. You feel uncomfortable in spring training, but then you’re excited to get that first ground ball hit to you. After that, I was fine.”
Pujols, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner in St. Louis, has been adequate, if not spectacular, on defense.
According to Fangraphs, he ranks 14th among 26 first basemen who have played at least 250 innings with a minus-3.4 defensive rating, which measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average. No first baseman has a positive rating.
“He’s been great,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’ve been able to tap into [his defense] a lot this year, and we’ll continue to do that. It allows us to get a little different dimension when we get Shohei’s bat in there.”
It also gives Pujols a lot less time to dwell on his at-bats, which is good in those games when he fails to get a hit or RBI.
“When you’re playing defense, you forget about hitting,” Pujols said. “But when you’re the DH, and you only hit once every three innings, you’re constantly going into the video room to look at-bats, and you watch too much.
“When I’m in the field, I feel like I’m in the game and focused. I take a lot of pride in that and feel like I’m a pretty good first baseman. Maybe I don’t have the range I had when I was 25 or 30, but you don’t have to have that. You can have the experience to make pretty much every play you can.”