“Since the time he was a child, [he] would eat, sleep, and breathe this sport,” wrote Deidre Pujols on Instagram Monday. Right after she announced that that day would be day one of her husband, Albert’s final season as a major league baseball player. The loving husband responded to his wife’s post with three heart emojis.
The game and those who love it are liable to respond with a lot more than that. Tears included. Not just because of what Pujols was and the no-questions-asked Hall of Fame greatness he personified, but because of what injuries—almost all involving his feet and legs—made of the second half of his career.
But will he retire after this season, really?
Mrs. Pujols subsequently updated the post. “Today is the first day of the last season (based on his contract) of one of the most remarkable careers in sports!” it now reads. Then, she updated it again, saying she wanted only to send him into this season with blessings.
His ten-year, gigabucks Angels contract expires after this season. His tenure has been so injury addled that there came times Angel fans wondered if the Cardinals, who declined to re-sign the first baseman after the 2011 season, hadn’t slipped a whoopee cushion under their tails.
Under normal circumstances nobody likes to see the greats hit their decline phases. Were there more heartbreaking sights than Babe Ruth as a feeble Boston Brave? Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, Satchel Paige, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, and Henry Aaron showing their ages at last?
Those men at least enjoyed the shorter declines. Pujols’s body turned his into a decade. Willie Mays’s kicking-and-screaming decline lasted seven years, heartbroken that he could no longer play the game he loved the way he did for so long. Steve Carlton spent almost half a decade jumping from team to team trying to find the left arm that went AWOL after almost two decades of Hall of Fame excellence. Pujols beat him and everyone else by almost double.
Last year, Pujols finally met and passed Mays on the all-time home run list. Earlier that pan-damn-ically truncated season, Pujols received a text from Mays: “It’s your time now. Go get it.” On 13 September, Pujols finally got it to tie. He turned on Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez’s 1-1 fastball and drove it just the way he did it in the truly glory years, half way up the left field seats on a parabola down the line.
Five days later, Pujols turned on Texas reliever Wes Benjamin’s fastball right down the chute on 1-2 and drove it into the visitors’ bullpen in Angel Stadium to pass Mays.
For a few brief, shining moments, Angel fans were reminded of treasures not really theirs to know, and Cardinal fans from a distance were reminded of what they were so fortunate to see for eleven transdimensional seasons. Watching a transdimensional talent who never stopped believing he absolutely had to get better.
The three-run detonation off Brad Lidge in the 2005 National League Championship Series, kept inside Minute Maid Park only by the retractable roof bracing wall. The reverse cycle of homers in Game Three of the 2011 World Series, every one of them after the sixth inning: the three-run homer, the two-run homer, the solo blast. The deadly lifetime postseason record. All those seasons as the game’s greatest righthanded hitter as well as a very run-preventive first baseman.
And, the sweet way Pujols paid tribute to the Cardinals legend who’d long befriended him, when Hall of Famer Stan Musial died in 2013. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” Pujols insisted, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”
Pujols was so emphatic about it that, when he became an Angel and the organisation festooned southern California with billboards announcing El Hombre‘s arrival, El Hombre blew his sombrero. He insisted very publicly that only one player should ever be called The Man, and his name wasn’t Albert Pujols. It takes longer for mob hit men to disappear their victims than it took the Angels to dispose of those billboards.
You think that was for showing and not for blowing? Few players have had as deep a reverence for baseball’s history as Pujols has had. That depth enabled Pujols to befriend Musial and mentor Mike Trout, “who might be the only position player this century to match [Pujols’s] level of peak greatness,” says The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya.
When Pujols said of Trout last year, ““We have the best player in the game, and five or six years from now, he’s going to be making history, too,” he didn’t have to be told Trout’s already made some history of his own. He knows it. He respects it. He mentored Trout into becoming the Angels’ team leader not by way of claiming the role for himself but by what he does on the field and how he lives off it.
Pujols himself lives a well-apportioned life away from baseball. Among other things, when not raising his own family, he and his wife have worked arduously with Down’s syndrome children—among whom is their own daughter, Isabella—and against human trafficking.
His lower body ruined what should have been a kinder, gentler, simpler decline phase. It’s left him prone to as much criticism under ordinary, non-milestone circumstances as he received high praise whenever the vintage Pujols made the periodic cameo. If the Angels looked foolish for signing him long-term and extraterrestrial salary after the injuries began to chip him down, they never once doubted Pujols was giving the best he had with whatever he had left.
““He plays through discomfort,” former general manager Billy Eppler told MLB.com after he tied Mays. “He endures a lot and doesn’t talk a lot about it. But I can tell you that he’s definitely someone that wants to play and fights through a lot of adversity to make sure he’s out there and contributing to the club.”
Even those whose admiration for him didn’t crumple the way his injuries forced him to crumple hoped somewhere, somehow, several times the past few years, that Pujols would swallow his formidable pride, leave the rest of his formidable money on the table, let nothing further tarnish his near-singular legacy, and sink into that ten-year services contract he still has with the Angels following his retirement.
“It has been so hard to watch one of the greatest players in the history of baseball fade like this,” wrote another Athletic scribe, Joe Posnanski, almost a year ago. “Each year, I hope against hope for Pujols to be Pujols one more time. Sadly, that just isn’t how time works. He is 40 now and a decade past his prime. It hasn’t been a sad career, though; far from it. It has been extraordinary. It has been an inspiration.”
It’s not unfair to say Pujols’s contract hamstrung the Angels when administrative tunnel vision didn’t when it came to re-tooling the team back to contention. Neither is it unfair to say that spending that much for a well-established Hall of Famer who hadn’t yet been hit with his physical issues didn’t have to mean the Angels ignoring their other issues, either.
Like his final Cardinals regular season, Pujols’s first Angel season was solid, if below his former standard. His 2011 postseason and how he helped the Cardinals win that outer-limits World Series may have deked people into thinking he’d only had one off year but plenty of petrol left in reserve.
Then plantaar fascitis in his heel kept him to 99 games in 2013 and a staggering enough fall from even that 2012 performance. Further injuries below his waistline made sure he’d look like an imitation of himself from then on, despite a few shining hours, a few significant milestones, a few moments in which he looked exactly the way he did over those impeccable St. Louis years.
But he didn’t hold a gun to the Angels’ heads and tell them to waste their remaining resources, either. The Angels have been an anti-model franchise during most of Pujols’s tour with them. If Pujols calls it a career after the season to come, the Angels, their fans, and their critics won’t have Pujols to blame for what wasn’t his fault in the first place.
This is Pujols according to my Real Batting Average metric (TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP / PA):
|With the Cardinals||7433||3893||975||251||68||77||.708|
|With the Angels||4961||2030||356||61||47||31||.509|
That’s what the injuries did in turning what should have been a natural decline phase into a hard-lived one.
Albert Pujols was a .708 batter as a Cardinal. His career RBA with a normal decline phase should have lined him up to finish at the top of the heap of Hall of Fame first basemen who played their careers in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. If his .628 holds by the end of this year, it’ll plant him in between Jeff Bagwell and Willie McCovey, and Pujols was the better all-around first baseman among those three plus first base RBA leader Jim Thome.
Pujols’s other nickname has been The Machine. Unfortunately, even machines have finite lives to do what they were built to do. They don’t all decline as sadly as this one did. Even if this one’s going make what promises to be a singular Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2027. With Stan Musial smiling broadly upon him from the Elysian Fields, if not blowing him a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his ubiquitous harmonica.
“Why did he quit?” Joe DiMaggio’s brother, Tom, once said when asked why the Yankee Clipper would call it a career after thirteen war-disrupted seasons and a persistent heel issue that turned into back trouble. “He quit because he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio anymore.”
Maybe the gigabucks Pujols earned as an Angel kept him from quitting precisely when he wasn’t really Albert Pujols anymore. Maybe his pride did it. Maybe both. Maybe, come the next off-season, it’ll be impossible at last for Pujols to tell himself he can be day-in, day-out great again. Maybe he’ll tell himself at last it’s time to let his whole record take him out of the box and into Cooperstown.
And maybe the Angels will find ways to a) make the game’s best player since Pujols joined the team proud; and, b) reach the postseason to send Pujols into retirement in a blaze of glory.
We can dream, can’t we?