Imagine something for me, it’ll just take a few minutes.
2022. Busch Stadium, St. Louis. Clark and Spruce are jam-packed. It’s a few minutes before five and first pitch is just about two hours away. Jose Alberto Pujols won’t take the field, but he will have a shot at home run #700. Could he do it in his 40’s? Could a guy who flourished after the steroid era crack the 700 home club?
A week-day night game doesn’t pack Busch every time, but today it’s close to full with batting practice only firing up. Every Cards fan wants to get a look at big #5, who got his old number back upon his return to St. Louis via a one year, see what happens deal that was announced in late January. Nolan Arenado last year, Pujols this time.
A reunion that has been in the works since Dec. 2011, when Pujols departed the Midwest for the sunnier skies of Los Angeles. A few decent years were had, but the downfall was quicker than most projected. It’s like the west coast got a different player, a last minute switch by Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak. The Pujols who donned a Cardinals jersey for eleven years wouldn’t have a problem drawing walks and reach for so many bad pitches.
So, even when the Angels shockingly released Pujols last May, the Cards couldn’t bite. There was no place to put him. Paul Goldschmidt was at first, where Pujols had played 20 games so far in 2021, and the team was already paying two “home run or nothing” guys in Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong. Proving Kyle Reis, a minor league baseball analyst for Birds on the Black, correct, Pujols joined the Chicago White Sox and hit 15 home runs, giving him 20 total for 2021 and 682 for his career.
Now, 2022 Pujols wouldn’t exactly restore his dominance, even in the right shade of red. Even as a part-time designated hitter, he will still bounce into a few too many double plays and find himself the victim of warning track power. But when he gets into one, look out. New Busch hasn’t been assaulted by AP in a good while. If he can get five homers for the Angels in a little over a month this spring, the man isn’t useless yet. At least that’s what the Cards told the media and fans in January, when the latest CBA was halfway done at least. Slugging .385 isn’t anyone’s idea of a slaughter-but Pujols has collected his fair share of moments already in 2022.
On April 5, he cracked a game-winning walk-off two-run blast to beat the Brewers. On May 20, on one foot after getting fooled on the previous pitch, he cracked a homer down the left field line. During the first three weeks of June, he went on an absolute tear, hitting five homers in a week. But July wasn’t kind to him, seeing him land on the IL for two weeks with a knee injury. A moderate slump bookended that stint, but he hit a couple of majestic bombs just last week. The weather is warming up, so his bat is following course. St. Louis humidity may suck, but Pujols taking advantage of the thin air sure isn’t.
On a steamy night in August, Pujols walks to the plate with #699 under his belt. In a modest year as the DH and backup first baseman/bench bat, he has hit 17 home runs already-but time is running out. The Cards are involved in a division battle with the Brewers, who aren’t going away.
Pujols grounds out to third base in his first at-bat, and strikes out in his next. Like an old man losing his memory little by little, the aging slugger can no longer punish mistakes at will and spray the ball into the gap. He has to tighten his scope and try to crush anything that gets too close. In the sixth inning of a 5-1 Cards game, he flies out to deep right. The opposite field power is back on full display, showing its face for the first time in weeks. If he gets one more at-bat, it could be the moment.
Dan McLaughlin urges Cards fans on television to keep tuned in, because the Cardinals could turn the lineup card over one more time. Nicknamed “Danny Mac” early on in his career with Fox Sports/Bally Sports Midwest, McLaughlin has seen Pujols’ rise all the way from the commencement. All these years, just like every fan in the stands currently turning Busch into a red hot tamale, he has hoped for a reunion.
Bottom of the eighth. Cards are now up 8-3, stretching the lineup out so Pujols could come up, of all things, third in the inning. Just like the old Tony La Russa lineup cards said. Tyler O’Neill, the full-time left fielder, rips a single to left with one out. The ball bounces hard and dives low going underneath the fielder’s glove. O’Neill races to third, waiting there for Pujols to knock him in, one way or the other.
Much like pitchers taking at-bats, this is where you don’t hope for a sac fly, instead thinking about a big fly. On the first pitch, Pujols gets under a waist-high inside fastball, sending it down the left field line. Foul, caught, or still alive? The ball lands in the first row of the left field box seats, just out of reach.
Suddenly, Pujols steps back in the box and starts doing the “Nolan.” A technique identified back in May of 2021 and put to use by the whole team in a thrilling playoff run that fell short in the NLCS. Pujols takes three deep breaths, and I mean big ones. He sucks the entire air stream out of the space between the pitcher and himself. Like the legend of old, he steps up to the plate and squints back at the pitcher, like a gunslinger placing his hand on the holster.
The bat swings low and the barrel comes back up high, and then down low again. This is what happens when a hitter is attempting to crack a safe. Focus, precision, and hand-eye coordination are teammates in one visceral explosion of hips and shoulders. The ball jumps off Pujols’ bat, sailing deep and far into the bleachers in left-center. Busch Stadium starts to shake, a sea of passionate and drunk-on-baseball fans coming out of their seats and shoes. The ball gets in the final row, bouncing back onto the field immediately, as if Baby Yoda was pulling it back to the dugout already.
The stadium erupts completely, with Market Street and Walnut shaking for seconds. Ballpark Village is shaking the foundation while the oversized World Series trophy rattles around. Mozeliak sits back in his seat, smiling just a little. Somewhere, La Russa pumps a gigantic fist. Brad Lidge nods quietly from his ranch.
#700 in Cardinal Red, at Busch Stadium in the heat of summer. Knees cracking and high-five collecting, Pujols strolls on a ginger jog to home plate, as if a mountain just slid off his shoulders. The feat was done, and it was time to rest. At home plate, he is greeted by the entire team in one big hug. The opposing Brewers stand and applaud, noticing a sliver of the guy who helped beat them in 2011 coming back to life.
The world is far from right, but a proper piece of St. Louis sports history is drying in ink, and it’s Pujols finishing what he started over twenty years ago. Divided by arrogance and greed in both directions with a silver lining drawn in business ethics, all the bad blood thins like the air, diluting into a distant memory.
It’s done. On the shoulders of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, Pujols is carried off the field to a thunderous ovation. Kids look on in confused awe, as their parents revert back to youthful teens. Old couples nod and applaud softly, wondering if Pujols had gone the way of Stan Musial and stayed put. Widows, single souls, and everyone in between start embracing others. Six feet apart rules are respected, but #5 just collected, so they dance.
Once again, baseball reminds us that all which was once good could easily be good again.
It’s a nice dream. Maybe, sometime down the road, Pujols can return to St. Louis. I hope it looks and sounds like this.