ST. LOUIS — On the day that David Freese was traded last winter, he said he already was looking forward to the time he would return to Busch Stadium and throw out the ceremonial first pitch. "When I’m 60," he added, but you definitely could see such a time and what a special moment it would make.
But even then, I thought what would be even cooler is the day that Albert Pujols has first-pitch honors in St. Louis. Again, that’s years down the road. Both of the former Cardinals will play at Busch — in 2016 if the interleague rotation holds as is — well before their playing days are done.
By then, maybe the bitterness in St. Louis over Pujols’ departure will be largely forgotten. His 500th homer has put him back in the headlines across the land, including the place where he hit 445 of them.
Hopefully, Pujols will be welcomed back to Busch on numerous occasions, like when his No. 5 is retired and when he is issued the standard red blazer after being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The latter, of course, depends on what logo adorns his Cooperstown plaque. If it has a halo, there could be a problem. Maybe Pujols will do a Tony La Russa so as not to offend the Cardinals or the Angels.
But if the logo belongs to the team where Pujols did the heavy lifting on his Hall of Fame resume, no way will it feature an "A." Pujols became a Hall of Famer during his 11 seasons in St. Louis. You can use any superlative you want to describe the numbers he amassed here and not do them justice. "Historic" certainly fits.
Pujols hardly was overlooked in St. Louis, but there came a time when his production was taken for granted. Really, though, that could happen anywhere when you are that great for that long. But when .299 with 37 homers and 99 RBIs is not enough, a little perspective has been lost.
If you have trouble recognizing all that Pujols accomplished for the Cardinals, check his page on baseball-reference.com. It’s head-shaking stuff, really. You can have a great debate just deciding which feats are most impressive. There are so many to choose from that it’s difficult to go wrong.
Start with Pujols’ rookie season: .329/.403/.610 with 37 homers, 130 RBIs and 112 runs.
He was 21.
Now remember all the screaming over Mike Trout and how he should have been an MVP after his rookie season? His numbers: .326/.399/.564 with 30 homers, 83 RBIs and 123 runs.
Or, since Trout did not arrive until late April in his rookie season, compare their year twos:
Trout: .323/.432/.557 with 27 homers, 97 RBIs and 109 runs.
Pujols: .314/.394/.561 with 34, 127 and 118.
You can make a strong case that Trout deserves the edge, especially when you factor in defense and base stealing. But let’s not forget how much gushing there was over Trout after a season that was not that much better than Pujols’ second year. And compared to the years that followed, year two would be a "down" year for Pujols.
Over the next seven seasons, Pujols did not hit less than .327 or have an OBP lower than .415, and only once did his OPS slip below 1.000 (.997 in 2007). In that stretch he also had five 40-homer seasons and five seasons with at least 119 runs.
Pujols made history when he became the first player to hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in each of his first 10 seasons. And the year that run ended, 2011, he finished at .299 with 99 RBIs after a 1 for 5 on the final day of the season. But even more impressive was the 11-year Triple Crown he put together in St. Louis by hitting .328 with 445 homers and 1,329 RBIs. Those were the best not only in the NL, but across both leagues.
His OPS for his 11 seasons in St. Louis was 1.037. In the past five seasons, only three other players — Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Josh Hamilton — have had a season better than that.
Trying to decide which was Pujols’ best year is like choosing between porterhouse and ribeye. Was it ’03, when he hit a career-best .359 and scored a career-most 137 runs? Or how about ’09, when he had 47 homers and career bests with 135 RBIs and a .443 OBP? Or perhaps you prefer ’05, when he hit .330 with 41 homers and 129 runs, stole 16 bases while being caught only twice and won the first of his three MVPs.
Even as numbing as reading numbers can be, when you think about these, you will shake your head in amazement.
Look at it another way and try to pick Pujols’ "worst" season in St. Louis. That would have to be 2007, when he hit .327 but with "only" 32 homers with 103 RBIs, or 2011, when he went .299 with 37 homers and 99 RBIs.
When a .327 average or 37 homers could be considered your "worst" season, you know you put up a ton of great numbers, enough to earn plenty of cool moments whenever you return.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.