Albert Pujols returns to St. Louis for one last season with the Cardinals
After more than 10 years away, Albert Pujols is back in St. Louis in his No. 5 uniform. He made his 22nd opening day start as the Cardinals took on the Pirates. The Cardinals won 9-0.
His return to the Cardinals was announced just as spring training in Florida was ending. He comes back as a designated hitter — a position new to the National League this year.
The homecoming made for an especially joyous event for fans, whose enthusiastic response showed that any hard feelings from Pujols' 2011 departure from the team is water under the bridge at this point.
When Pujols joined the team in 2001, he immediately made an impact, says Derrick Goold, the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"He burst onto the scene during spring training 2001 — forced his way onto the team and then went and won the Rookie of the Year Award," Goold said. "And from there launched into a career where he was the best right-handed hitter of his generation. The best right-handed hitter the Cardinals had seen since Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s, before baseball's integration, and the best hitter the Cardinals had had since one of the greatest hitters of them all in Stan 'The Man' Musial."
Pujols was a three-time MVP and a four-time MVP runner-up. He won two World Series with the Cardinals, in 2006 and 2011. But after the 2011 championship, Pujols left St. Louis for a $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
His departure was not an easy time for everyone.
"It was hard to watch him go somewhere else because of the thought that he could be one of the greatest Cardinals of all time," said Tom Ackerman, the sports director at KMOX radio in St. Louis. "And perhaps, if he rode out his entire career in St. Louis, he could eclipse all the numbers that were set by the greatest Cardinal of all time, Stan Musial. He would go down in history of that caliber."
While Pujols was a leader on the team, he also made an impact off the field with his Pujols Family Foundation to help kids and their families who live with Down syndrome, as well as help communities in the Dominican Republic.
"The closest to his heart [is] Down syndrome — with a child who has Down syndrome. It meant a lot to him," Ackerman said. "He was incredibly gracious. A man of faith. He was very well respected by many people in the St. Louis area. He had the city basically in love with him from the very beginning, really, and all through that decade."
That work off the field is what made some of his fans love him even more. Quinn Mortimore of Springfield, Mo., has been a Cardinals fan for as long as he can remember. His first trip to St. Louis for a game was when he was 10. Pujols was in the starting lineup, and Mortimore said he was "watching the on-deck circle all night, seeing whenever he was about to come up."
"Pujols, he was Mr. Baseball to me for the first half-decade or so that I was watching," Mortimore said. "Then I learned more about him, about his family, what he did for the community, and it just made me like him even more as a player and a person."
The love for Pujols didn't end when he signed his 10-year contract with the Angels.
By the time he returned to St. Louis in 2019, he was still playing for Los Angeles, but he got a standing ovation from Cardinals fans when he stepped up to the plate and another one when he hit a home run later that weekend.
At the time, Pujols said the welcome nearly brought him to tears. He was welcomed back again when he visited St. Louis with the Los Angeles Dodgers. This season, he can likely expect a lot more of that enthusiasm, said Goold.
"It's going to border on magic, and if he pulls out a magic trick, it's gonna shake downtown," Goold said.
It's a bittersweet moment though. Pujols said when he signed the deal that this is going to be his last season. The same is true for his good friend Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, and it might be the end for pitcher Adam Wainwright as well.
But until that day comes, St. Louis is celebrating the return of one of its greats and hoping for a little bit of magic this season.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.