The more Albert Pujols talked about St. Louis, the more he smiled.
Next Tuesday at Anaheim, Pujols will play against the Cardinals for the first time — in the regular season, in spring training, in anything other than an intrasquad game. When I asked what it will feel like to stand at home plate and see his close friend Yadier Molina crouching behind it, Pujols thought back on 11 years of faces, names and championships.
He listed them one by one — Nate . . . Josh . . . Rip Rowan . . . C.J. Cherre . . . Chad Blair — from the young clubhouse attendants who cleaned his shoes, to the traveling secretary, to the video coordinator, to senior medical adviser Barry Weinberg, whom Pujols called “the guy who kept me on the field, healthy, for 11 years.” He thanked his old manager, Tony La Russa, “who trusted me from Day 1 and always made me feel I belonged there.”
He reminisced about his teammates, saying he keeps in touch with Molina, Adam Wainwright, Jon Jay, Allen Craig and others. And, yes, he spoke of his appreciation for the team’s devoted fans — a group that no longer supports him uniformly, after he left to sign with the Angels for 10 years and $240 million following the 2011 World Series.
“St. Louis is still a special place for me,” Pujols told FOXSports.com Wednesday, before the Angels’ 7-4 win over the Detroit Tigers. “I still have my home there. I live there in the offseason. I enjoyed playing in front of 40,000 people every day. I tried to do my best to help the organization win. I had success there. We won two World Series. We went to three. That’s something you can’t take from me. I had great teammates and great memories. Those are things you’re always going to take with you.
“The reality is that city made me who I am today.”
Thus continues the story of a 33-year-old future Hall of Famer whose legacy remains in limbo — not entirely embraced in St. Louis, not yet defined in Anaheim. Eight-and-a-half years remain on his contract with the Angels, but, barring another two rings and three MVPs, he will be more remembered for what he did with the Cardinals.
By now, Pujols must realize the magnitude of the unconditional love he left behind. He’s too proud to admit explicitly that he misses being a Cardinal. He’s also too proud to give in to the pain of a surgically-repaired knee in his right leg and plantar fasciitis in his left, as he remains (improbably and rather courageously) on track for another 100-RBI season.
Meanwhile, any ego bruising from Pujols’ departure has healed.
“There’s nothing bitter about it,” he said. “It’s tough that it didn’t work out. It happens. I wasn’t the first one it happens to do. It happened to Miguel Cabrera. It happened to Alex Rodriguez. It happened to Ken Griffey Jr. It happens to many players who play this game: At some time, they move along.
“I think the only thing I’m bitter about is the way the front office handled it a little bit. I think they should have handled it a little better. I’m bitter about that. They tried to make me look like I was a bad guy. But that’s OK. I’m a big boy. Besides that, I also understand there’s nothing I can do. Even if I could take it back, I’m happy where I am right now. My goal is to focus and concentrate on what I need to do to help this ballclub win.”
So what, exactly, did the Cardinals’ front office do?
“It’s something I don’t want to talk about,” he said. “They know what they did. I don’t need to talk about that.”
See? It’s complicated. One moment, Pujols says it is “tough” that he didn’t remain with the Cardinals. The next, his words recall the resentment his wife, Deidre, expressed when she told a St. Louis-area radio station that the team’s initial five-year offer (for more than $100 million) was an “insult.”
Pujols and the Cardinals must reconcile in time, because that is the only sensible path for either party. The Cardinals honor their heritage as well as any organization in baseball, with 90-year-old Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst a fixture in spring training to this day. A generation from now, the Cardinals will want Pujols to be at Busch Stadium for retellings of the ’06 and ’11 titles. And Pujols will realize soon — if he hasn’t already — that the ovations for him in Anaheim won’t be as heartfelt as they were in St. Louis.
Even as his warm feelings toward the Cardinals are tinged with antipathy toward management, Pujols remains respectful — reverent, even — of the franchise’s history. Pujols forged a close relationship with the legendary Stan Musial throughout his career in St. Louis and is planning a gesture to recognize Musial, who died in January, during next week’s series.
“I believe we have something going on to honor Stan,” Pujols told me. “I’m still in touch with Stan’s grandson, Brian [Schwarze]. We’ve been friends. It’s going to mean a lot. It’s going to bring some memories. I still have pictures in my phone with Stan. Every time I look at my photo album, I think about him. I wish we could have had more (time together) on this Earth, but it was time for him to go. The City of St. Louis is always going to miss Stan. He was an ambassador.
“Stan was the guy who, when he walked into the clubhouse, everybody stopped doing what they were doing. It was like a light that came and shined through the whole clubhouse. That’s how I felt when his presence was in the clubhouse. And it’s not just Stan. It’s Bob Gibson, Ozzie [Smith], Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter — all the Hall of Famers. They are really part of the organization. They come around. Red Schoendienst has like (70) years in the organization. I enjoyed having those guys around. I learned a lot from them.”
The appreciation in Pujols’ voice was deep as he spoke about the memories, which begged an obvious question: Thirty years from now, does he want to be the resident Hall of Famer in the Cardinals’ clubhouse?
“I’ll be here in Anaheim,” he said matter-of-factly, as if to remind me that his deal with the Angels includes a 10-year personal services contract after he retires.
Then he backpedaled a little. That is the archway he cannot bear to close.
“I don’t know,” he continued. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. If we’re alive by then, we can talk about it. It’ll be a different conversation. I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
As with most things associated with Pujols’ place in Cardinals history, a resolution on that question must wait for a later date. For now, Pujols is happy with a recent adjustment at the plate — as evidenced by an .881 OPS and five home runs this month. “It’s not where I want to be yet,” he said of his swing, “but I’m pretty happy about where it is.”
Next Tuesday, after he gives Molina a respectful shin-guard tap and digs in, he will try to remind us why the way in which he’s remembered will matter so much.
“I just hope I can go deep the first at-bat,” he said, laughing.
It was the perfect one-liner, yet there was an earnest request within it: I’m not finished hitting yet. And I’m still having a little fun. Can we talk about my St. Louis legacy later?
“My time there was great,” he said. “Whether you want to call it my best years, you can call it whatever want to call it. I had success there. But I also learned they’ve moved on without me. I’m the same way, too.”