Oh my God, Albert Pujols hit two home runs in the biggest win of the St. Louis Cardinals’ season. In 2022.
I was twelve years old when Albert Pujols debuted. I had yet to graduate from elementary school. Albert Pujols was Major League teammates with four men–Chuck Finley, Jeff Fassero, Bobby Bonilla, and Mark McGwire–who were born when John F. Kennedy was president. The average MLB team has had fewer than three players in 2022 who were born during the Ronald Reagan presidency, which lasted eight years, and Albert Pujols was born the presidency before that one. And yet here Albert Pujols is, being a legitimately important part of a division run for a franchise where he is rather conclusively on their all-time Mount Rushmore.
From a strictly statistical perspective, the Albert Pujols signing by the St. Louis Cardinals has been a respectable one. Certainly, his numbers cannot compare to what he put up in his initial eleven-season run in St. Louis, but with a 120 wRC+, Pujols is in line for his greatest offensive output since 2014. Particularly in a league with a designated hitter, where fewer in-game substitutions are particularly necessary, a player like Pujols with a very niche, situational role makes sense. A guy like Brendan Donovan, even with his steady offensive decline, is particularly valuable in keeping a guy like Pujols, who can only realistically handle one defensive position and it’s one regularly patrolled by an MVP frontrunner, viable.
When the Cardinals signed Albert Pujols, I was very skeptical of the move–I have enough integrity to admit this but also enough wisdom to know not to link to evidence of my skepticism, which has been disproven thoroughly. My sense was that Pujols was a greatly diminished player, sure (and in the broad sense, I wasn’t wrong there), but more significantly, that he still perceived himself as the star. I knew that Albert Pujols would inevitably receive standing ovations the first time, and perhaps every time, he came to the plate with the Cardinals throughout the season, but would he, or the organization, have the humility to understand his limitations?
More than Albert Pujols’s power surges, what has most impressed me with Albert Pujols in 2022 is that he has been as quintessential of a great teammate as one could fathom. For all of his many, many strengths as a player during his initial run as a Cardinal, Albert Pujols epitomized an untouchable superstar–he was certainly not a jerk, but his greatness was such so that it was inconceivable to imagine him taking a back seat to anybody. When Pujols approached home plate in the eighth inning yesterday with the chance to blow a narrow St. Louis lead wide open, my natural assumption was that Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell would counter with a right-handed relief pitcher. And I had no concerns that Pujols would talk his way into what would have been a poorly-conceived at-bat–I was convinced that Albert Pujols would happily step aside so that Nolan Gorman, a left-handed batter who was born after Albert Pujols was drafted, could fill in at designated hitter.
Perhaps there is a parallel for Albert Pujols–a competitive maniac who was able to become a beloved, supportive teammate (most famously earlier this season with Juan Yepez, who effectively has been Albert’s shadow at times) in a scaled-back role–but I’m at a loss for one. It’s not like Michael Jordan became a primary distributor for the Washington Wizards, facilitating (Adam Wainwright’s high school classmate, to pull things back to the Cardinals) Kwame Brown’s development and decidedly not trading Rip Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse. Derek Jeter, somewhat infamously, refused to step away from the shortstop role for the New York Yankees, leading to sub-optimal scenarios like defensive stalwart Brendan Ryan playing first base for a team that did not make the postseason. Perhaps it was Albert Pujols’s brush with career mortality last season that made him appreciative of simply being a part of a team, or perhaps he always had this in him, but as a fan of the Cardinals acutely aware that him becoming 2003 Albert Pujols again was essentially impossible, the 2022 version has been a delightful surprise.
When you are twelve years old, the prospect of being able to drive a car, a life accomplishment that is only four years away if you were able to conceive of anything on an intellectual level, seems like a lifetime away. The prospect of graduating college or getting married or owning a home or having children or any of countless life milestones from the perspective of a person who has not yet reached their teenage years is beyond comprehension. There are virtually no relevant barometers of popular culture which can properly contextualize how long Albert Pujols has been in the public eye. He won an MVP award the year Grey’s Anatomy debuted. He was an MVP finalist before Beyoncé began her solo music career; he was a Rookie of the Year winner before Billie Eilish was born.
I have always taken a particular interest in José Quintana, well before he became a St. Louis Cardinal, for the very silly reason that he is precisely one day older than I am (the same is also true of Whit Merrifield, but he came into the picture several years later). I saw him ascend to the level of coveted starting pitcher in the mid-2010s and, even when it meant it made the Chicago Cubs, I could never truly embrace what felt like my twin aging. Not in an overly maudlin way, mind you–José Quintana was always going to be personally fine, but it did feel like, I don’t know, something. But now he is teammates with a guy who debuted in the Majors when he was twelve years old. Paul Goldschmidt was in middle school. Nolan Arenado was in fourth grade. Dylan Carlson, whose go-ahead home run in the eighth inning looked to be a true highlight of the season before Albert Pujols commanded the attention of the Cardinals-loving world (to be fair, given Carlson’s sheepishness in taking a curtain call, he’s probably fine with this), was two years old. No matter how old you are, Albert Pujols is going to represent the last of something for you. And boy does his continued success feel demonstrative of the continuation of whatever that is.