Tío Albert Pujols embraces role with the Dodgers, and his new family returns the love
It’s become customary at this point, nearly four months into Albert Pujols’ time with the Dodgers. Every time a Dodger swats a home run, Pujols waits for him and offers a hug. He gives full embraces, none of that half-hug stuff, with a smile. Teammates look forward to the affection. It’s sewn into the 2021 Dodgers’ fabric.
“It’s become a big thing for our ballclub,” Pujols said, “and everybody has embraced it.”
Pujols never considered himself a hugger before joining the Dodgers in May because he grew up in a place where people gave frequent hugs. He’s Dominican and Dominicans, he says, often have an affinity for warm embraces. It’s part of the culture. It’s second nature to him.
“That’s something that I’ve always done,” Pujols said.
Those hugs helped spawn a new nickname — Tío Albert — in honor of his off-field presence. For the way the future first-ballot Hall of Famer gushingly cheers on teammates in his 21st major-league season and 42nd year on Earth. For the advice he offers anyone willing to listen, which is seemingly everyone on the roster, in the clubhouse, batting cage, team plane and everywhere in between.
“I take advice from that señor whenever I can,” Brusdar Graterol, a 23-year-old reliever, said in Spanish.
Max Scherzer turned in a dominant, 13-strikeout performance in his hometown to steer the story line away from Albert Pujols in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win.
Don’t be mistaken. Pujols is not on the Dodgers’ roster for his wisdom and hugs. The Dodgers are in the business of winning championships and production trumps all. His good vibes are the cherry on top of the on-field impact that’s made his surprising signing an unmitigated success.
Pujols, signed to face left-handed pitching, is batting .261 with 11 home runs and a .782 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 178 plate appearances with the Dodgers. Against lefties, he’s batting .301 with 12 home runs and a .954 OPS this season. He improved upon the numbers in the ninth inning Sunday with a pinch-hit, two-run home run — the 678th of his career — off San Francisco Giants closer Jake McGee.
It was Pujols’ second pinch-hit home as a Dodgers after totaling two in his first 20 seasons, a stat that reveals the slugger’s unfamiliar standing: Pujols is, for the first time, a bench player.
“When Albert came on board, the landscape, the roster was different,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He helped us certainly get from there to here and he’s going to help us going forward.”
Initially, when shortstop Corey Seager and others were out with injuries, Pujols regularly started against left-handers, but he became the odd man out once the Dodgers acquired Trea Turner at the trade deadline to play second base. Turner’s arrival locked Max Muncy in at first base, limiting Pujols to five starts in the 29 games since Turner debuted Aug. 6. He’ll make his sixth and seventh starts Tuesday and Thursday in his old stomping grounds of St. Louis, where he’s returning for the second time since leaving town in 2011.
“Not playing every day is tough,” Pujols said. “But I enjoy every moment and every opportunity that I get out there and try to help this ballclub to win. We have a heck of a ballclub. So, it’s pretty exciting.”
Cardinals fans are sure to cheer Albert Pujols when the Dodgers visit St. Louis this week. Could he play alongside Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina in 2022?
Winning was routine for Pujols in 11 seasons with the Cardinals. The franchise reached the postseason seven times and won two World Series titles as Pujols cemented himself as one of the greatest hitters in history. Pujols then signed a 10-year, $254-million contract with the Angels and losing became the norm. The Angels went to the playoffs once, in 2014, and got swept. Seven years later, a return to the postseason, barring a historic collapse, is in the cards.
“The second half of my career hasn’t been as great as I would love [for it to be],” Pujols said. “But at the end of the day, you need to be grateful and thankful for everything that happens in your career.”
Pujols declined to share whether this will be his final season. He reiterated that he’ll address his future in the offseason when he hits free agency. Major League Baseball adopting the universal designated hitter this winter would boost the chances of him helping a club and extending his career. For now, he’s busy starring in his new roles. He’s a dangerous bat off the bench and the cool tío, with hugs for everyone.
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