Past comes to Anaheim: Pujols and a tricky legacy

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It would be easier if it weren’t so red.

It would be easier if I couldn’t squint my eyes and blur out the Angels logo, leaving in focus only the fabric patch to its left, surrounded by what looks to be Cardinal red.

It’s a Stan Musial patch — No. 6, with the signature across the middle, the one that’s been plastered all over St. Louis since the Man’s January death. It’s 4 p.m. in the Angels dugout, and the humidity suffocates, as if we’re in St. Louis. The media flocks around Albert Pujols as if we’re in St. Louis, as if it’s 2011, as if that Angels logo doesn’t exist.

But it exists.

You can only squint for so long before the pullover becomes incongruous, the logo of one team, the patch that’s the heart and soul of another. Growing up in St. Louis, raised to believe that this team, and eventually this man, was the apex of sports – it can only blind me for so long. Pujols keeps saying that this would be different, harder, if it were in St. Louis. That’s true – harder for him.

I’ve moved on, and St. Louis has moved on, for the most part. Pujols has moved on, but perhaps not to the extent of the rest of us. The Cardinals raised him, he says. You don’t move on from that. I get it.

Albert Pujols is talking about death. He’s talking about Darryl Kile, the Cardinals pitcher who died unexpectedly of a heart attack on June 22, 2002. He’s talking about Musial, the legend who became “his buddy” during 11 seasons in St. Louis, the man whose own nickname made Pujols swear off “El Hombre” out of respect, whose funeral in January put a whole city into mourning.

“It goes quick,” Pujols says. “That’s life. That’s why you need to take advantage of what God has given you.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I might not wake up and be alive. … Tomorrow’s not guaranteed to me. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed to you, to any of you guys.”

This history brings out a certain morbidity, apparently. Pujols is talking about the Cardinals like they’re a family, about his “little brother Yadi.” The connections are still there. Pujols loves those players across the way, but eventually they’ll retire. Eventually the Cardinals will have new faces, faces he never played with, never mentored, never learned from. By then, who will Albert Pujols be – to them, to St. Louis, to baseball?

A few minutes later in the Cardinals dugout, longtime third base coach and former Cardinals utility man José Oquendo is talking about a neighborhood in suburban St. Louis, nestled in the Missouri River Valley. Several current players live there. Pujols still keeps his house. The way Oquendo is talking, it sounds like a Cardinals family compound.

Moments later, manager Mike Matheny sits down for his pregame talk. Matheny played with Pujols from 2001-04 in St. Louis, and the two were close. He’s part of the chain of relationships that Pujols was explaining earlier, the baseball family. For years, Matheny would hit with Pujols in the winter. John Mabry, a utility man on the team then, its hitting coach now, was present for many of those sessions, and he used to curse at Matheny for spending too much time looking for holes in Pujols’ swing. He was trying to help. Now, it’s the very opposite.

Around 5:30 p.m., the Cardinals take the field for batting practice. Pujols is there, instantly among them, blending in with his own red uniform. He’s talking to Jake Westbrook and Adam Wainwright. Photographers snap shots of his every word, his every gesticulation. St. Louis will eat this up.

Eventually, Yadier Molina comes over. The two are like family. There’s a hug, and a crowd of young players gathers to watch the reunion. More photographs, and it almost feels too personal to watch. I still can’t look away.

In the section below the press box, still an hour and a half before the game, a lone man sits. His Cardinals cap is backwards; his shirt reads “Musial” on the back. We’re a long way from St. Louis, but St. Louis has done its best to come to Pujols tonight.

As the section fills, the jerseys flood in. No. 5, Pujols, they read. By game time, there are four. All of them Cardinals, none Angels. It’s not so strange. In St. Louis, an Ozzie Smith or Musial jersey is as common as a current player’s. Pujols is now another of those vintage names, however prematurely, however disappointing it might still be.

When Pujols is announced, the man in the Musial jersey does not clap. I’m annoyed. You’re supposed to clap.

The night is something of a tribute to Stan the Man. His grandson, Brian Schwarze, throws out the first pitch. Pujols catches it. A few innings later, a tribute video plays. Footage of the late, great broadcaster, Jack Buck, is pumped through the stadium. It’s moving. It’s also strange. We are in Anaheim.

In the bottom of the first inning, Pujols comes to bat with one man on and one out. He talks to Molina for a moment – “he was just messing with me,” Pujols says after the game – and then settles in, his closest friend, perhaps the best catcher in baseball, now charged with calling the pitches to send him back to the dugout.

Molina wins this battle. Pujols strikes out with a full count, and J.B. Shuck is caught stealing on a failed hit-and-run. Pujols could have predicted the second part.

On the night, he goes 0-for-3 with a walk. His only interactions with his former teammates come at the plate and in those few moments he spends at first base. Pujols is now a designated hitter the majority of the time, and so he will not tag Freese out at first base. He will not hold Molina close to the bag. He will not pat an old teammate on the butt after a bloop single, forgetting for a second that he’s now their adversary.

This Albert Pujols sits in the dugout between at-bats. This Albert Pujols is batting .247. Last year, he hit .285, the worst mark of his career. He’s declining. It’s the elephant in the dugout, in the clubhouse, in the manager’s office. He’s declining, and it’s in front of a fan base that knows him only as such. He’s declining nearly 2,000 miles from the people who care the most, and now his decline only makes them feel smarter.

It doesn’t seem right.

In the eighth inning, with the Angels up, 5-1, the Cardinals have loaded the bases. Matt Adams, the heir apparent to Pujols’ spot at first base, comes to the plate. A writer near me in the press box realizes who Adams is. He’s Pujols’ replacement, the guy says, as if there could be such a thing. He’s hooked onto one of those narratives writers love to spin. Pujols’ replacement, with the chance to tie the game. Narrative gold.

Adams strikes out.

Next up, it’s David Freese, St. Louis’s hometown hero. He was raised a Cardinals fan in the suburbs. He’s the upstart who won them a World Series in 2011, the new fan favorite, another replacement, in a sense. Another narrative. Another story, if only he’d just tie the game.

Freese grounds into a double play.

Freese hits into a double play, and it’s OK. The inning ends, and the Angels eventually win, 5-1, and it’s right. Because I hate those narratives. I don’t want anyone to write them. It’s not time for them, not yet. It’s not time for Pujols’ individual successors to be named superior, even if the Cardinals are the third-best team in baseball and missed the World Series by a hair last year without him. It’s not time, even if he’s getting older, even if the Cardinals saved their future by not paying up.

It’s not time. Not yet. For now, I want the Angels to get a glimpse of Albert Pujols, the one who made me stay at games until the 14th inning and then delivered walk-offs, the one whom I watched club three home runs in one World Series game in Texas. They deserve a glimpse, but not because I want to share him.

It’s because I still feel, in some abstract way, that he belongs to St. Louis. Because I don’t want him to end his career surrounded by fans who don’t understand.