By Cullen Jekel
Back on July 15, 2005, I attended my last St. Louis Cardinals game at the old Busch Stadium (or, if you remember Sportsman Park, Busch II).
The Cardinals, who in the previous year won the pennant for the first time in manager Tony La Russa‘s tenure, were battling the Houston Astros. Andy Pettitte, a future Hall of Famer, was on the mound for Houston against the Cardinals’ Mark Mulder.
This battle of southpaws went into the ninth inning with the Cardinals up 2-1. Closer Jason Isringhausen–like La Russa and Mulder, an ex-Athletic–promptly blew the save. On to extra innings.
And then for the first time in my life, I witnessed what is one of the most exciting plays in baseball: the walk-off home run.
In the 12th inning, suddenly down 3-2, against Chad Harville (I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember him), Cardinals 1B and resident superstar Albert Pujols came to bat with David Eckstein on first. Pujols launched a high fly ball to deep left-center. Houston’s left fielder, Orlando Palmeiro, and center fielder, Willy Taveras, converged on it. Taveras jumped, seemed to have snagged…
Ball game. Cardinals win, 4-3.
Flash-forward a bit over four years. On August 28, 2009, I’m at the new Busch Stadium with my girlfriend, my father, my sister, and her husband.
Since that July 2005 game, the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, and Pujols has added to his lore. The man appears unstoppable (hence his nickname, The Machine), and is in the midst of his third MVP-year of his career, including his second straight.
Against the Washington Nationals that night, the Cardinals saved a solid outing by SP John Smoltz by tying the game at 2 apiece with a Khalil Greene solo home run in the 8th inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Pujols led off the inning against Nationals reliever Jason Bergmann.
And absolutely destroyed a pitch to left. Unlike in 2005, there was no doubt about this one.
Ball game. Cardinals win, 3-2.
Albert Pujols played eleven seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals, hitting 10 walk-off home runs, including the two described above. He won three Most Valuable Player Awards, made nine All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves, won three pennants, and won two World Series championships.
The second of those World Series championships came in 2011 when the Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in seven games. After the series, La Russa announced his retirement.
And then Pujols left, signing with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
On August 29, 2018, the Angels announced that Pujols would miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his left leg. He still has three years left on his contact with the Angels, with $28 million due in 2019, $29 million in 2020, and $30 million in 2021, when Pujols will be 41 years old.
To say things have not gone according to plan since he joined the Angels would be an understatement. He’s made the All-Star team just once, and despite playing alongside the game’s best player, Mike Trout, has reached the playoffs just once. That was in 2014, when the Angels had the best record in baseball. They were promptly swept in the divisional round by the Kansas City Royals.
After slashing .328/.420/.617 for eleven years in St. Louis, he’s slashed a mere .260/.315/.453 with L.A.
Pujols missing the rest of the year is no big blow to the Angels. While not mathematically eliminated, they are well out of contention yet again, below .500 once more. Pujols finishes 2018 slashing .245/.289/.411 with 19 home runs and 64 runs batted in. For only the second time in his career (the first being 2013, his second year in L.A.), he’ll finish with below 500 plate appearances.
While undoubtedly a first-ballot, should-be-unanimous future Hall-of-Famer, he’s gone from superstar to below-average player. The Angels may be better off making him ride the pine.
That’s what happens when athletes age. It’s unnerving and uncomfortable to watch. Instead of gracefully exiting, they fade out–usually with a different team, usually not on their own terms.
With superstars/future Hall of Famers, it’s worse, because teams will keep giving these guys chances. This happens in all sports. It’s painful to watch a center fielder who can no longer field, a running back who lacks quickness, a quarterback with flailing arm strength or accuracy, or a basketball player with diminished skill.
Think of these guys:
- Emmitt Smith with the Arizona Cardinals
- Willie Mays with the New York Mets
- Karl Malone with the Los Angeles Lakers
- Johnny Unitas with the San Diego Chargers
- Hank Aaron with the Milwaukee Brewers
- Shaq with the Boston Celtics
Those guys had little-to-nothing left to give, but because of their statute, they didn’t go quietly in the night. Rather they went gradually, cruelly fading before fans’ eyes as they limped off into the sunset.
Heroes no more.
For me, Albert Pujols’ slow fade away out of greatness and into retirement hits closer to home than that of Smith, Mays, Unitas, or Shaq.
I didn’t grow up a Dallas Cowboys fan, so while seeing Smith suiting up for Arizona was shocking, it didn’t sadden me. Same goes with The Big Aristotle–rather a vagabond if you think about it–playing out his days with the Celtics.
Seeing pictures of The Say-Hey Kid worn down with the Mets is jolting, but he last played in 1973, well before I was born. Same with Unitas under center with the Chargers–that also took place in 1973.
With Pujols, it’s different, closer to home. He played for my favorite team. He debuted while I was in middle school. I watched him during my high school years, then college years, then post-graduate years, into adulthood.
It is saddening to watch old highlights of him with the Cardinals followed by current ones with him in a different shade of red.
It hurts watching him limp around the bases and being banished to a DH* role. After all, he started his career as a third baseman before moving to left field. He moved to first base full-time in his fourth season and won two Gold Gloves there. But that was all in St. Louis.
*This year he played more games at 1B than DH–this may have had something to do with his season-ending injury.
For whatever reason, Pujols has faded from the public eye. Overall, it’s disheartening watching him fade while he plays on a noncompetitive team. There is already talk that the Angels may not—should not–bring him back for an eighth season with the team.
If Pujols and the Angels agree to part ways, it would be best for him to hang it up, but there’s going to be some team that will want to bring him on. He’s no longer a threat to break the all-time home run record, yet he would provide leadership to a team and the threat of some pop off the bench.
And so, he’ll retire as an Angel, or a member of some other team–not a member of the team with which he is best known.
He’ll retire on his last legs, fading as we watch him–not a superstar, not the best player on his team. Probably not even a starter.
And he’ll retire, I’m guessing, not after an October playoff push, but rather on a team eliminated, or out of contention, by the beginning of September.
Worst of all, like Willie Mays with the Mets*, not a hero, but the shell of a former one.
*Though Mays indeed retired after playing in the World Series. His Mets lost in seven to the Athletics. Mays appeared in only three games, going 2-for-7.
The schedule for the 2019 MLB season was released a couple of weeks ago.
After not visiting St. Louis as a member of the Angels for the last seven years, Albert Pujols will make his return to the Gateway to the West for a series next June.
Here’s to the Cardinals organization properly recognizing him.
Here’s to the Cardinals fans warmly welcoming him back.
Here’s to Albert Pujols bucking the trend, defeating the odds, and gracefully exiting from Major League Baseball.