Albert Pujols's Emotional Return Drums Up Nostalgia in St. Louis

A 75-second applause left no question about how St. Louis feels about Albert Pujols in a surreal ovation Friday night at Busch Stadium.
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ST. LOUIS—It no longer matters why. It’s pointless to dwell on the reasons he left St. Louis, to wonder if 2012 might have gone better, or 2013, or any of the seasons the Cardinals made the playoffs but failed to win it all after Albert Pujols departed for Los Angeles. And no one here is wondering, or dwelling, or stewing—not any longer. No better thing could have happened for Pujols or St. Louis than the quirk of the schedule that pushed nine years between the Angels’ last trip here and this one, their first with this not-so-new roster addition.

It wasn’t that St. Louis wouldn’t have understood if Pujols had rolled into town sooner. It just stung back then, the feeling of rejection, the question of how a couple million dollars could hold so much sway to a man with hundreds of them. There were too many lingering what ifs and if onlys back then, even as St. Louisans—myself included—swore up and down that Pujols’s contract would have certainly, definitely, absolutely hampered the team’s success. It was the only medicine we had, and just as the Cardinals won’t ever understand why Pujols left, they’ll also never know what those Octobers would have looked like with the greatest Cardinal since Stan Musial eating up a chunk of their payroll.

But what they do know, what I know, what you probably know if you’re interested enough to get three paragraphs into this story, is about the applause. There were 75 seconds of it in the first inning Friday night, with two outs and a man on third. It started when No. 5 was still standing in the batter’s box, escalated as he made his way toward the plate. Yadier Molina, whom Pujols has called his “little brother,” did what he always does for returning ex-teammates. He stood a few feet toward the pitcher’s mound and looked at the fans sitting behind the plate, hands on his hips, a tattooed conductor of this symphony of screams. Pujols arranged the dirt as batters are wont to do, and in the dugout, Adam Wainwright—the only Cardinal besides Molina to have played appreciable time with the first-baseman-turned-DH—waved his hand as if to say, "C’mon, man." Then, finally, Pujols looked up to take it in. This certainly wasn’t the highest-stakes at-bat of his career, but it must have been the most surreal. He took off his helmet, turned clockwise in a circle, pointing at Wainwright in the dugout (waving his cap, smiling like a goon) last. And then Molina came back, not to catch, but to pull Pujols into an embrace, and the crowd kept losing its collective mind, fueled by nostalgia and the magic these players evoke, the long-dormant sense in St. Louis that with Wainwright and Molina and Pujols together in the same building, anything might happen. The cheering ceased only when the man at the plate, fifth in the Angels order, popped a pitch into center field, into the glove of a kid who was six years old when Pujols debuted and in high school when he last stepped to the Busch Stadium plate.

On the night, in a 5-1 Cardinals win, Pujols went 1-for-2, with an infield hit and a walk to go along with that fly out. Each of the three times he stepped to the plate, nearly everyone in sold-out Busch Stadium stood and cheered. For the second at-bat, the crowd broke out the chant that used to be so familiar here: Al-bert. Al-bert. Al-bert. I was in that crowd, high up behind home plate in section 453; I’d been planning since the schedule was released last summer to be home in St. Louis, screaming and reminiscing and getting a little bit misty-eyed over my childhood hero. In fact, even before the exact dates of this series became public, there were reports that June would be the month that the Angels were coming, so I marked my iCal for 30 days with a designation: PUJOLS MONTH.

I was as giddy as a 13-year-old Friday night—as giddy, specifically, as 13-year-old me back in 2001, when I cut box scores out of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and grew increasingly astonished at the rookie who was consistently smacking three hits a game, whose average swelled to .389 on April 13 and wouldn’t dip below .350 until June 7. If OPS had been a thing newspapers published back then, I would have swooned: 1.013 on the season for the kid drafted in the 13th round two years earlier, out of Maple Woods Community College.

The home run race of 1998 made me fall in love with baseball, but Big Mac had nothing on this new guy, the 2001 Rookie of the Year who won a Silver Slugger to boot. In the years to come, Pujols would pull in Gold Gloves at first base and tug the Cardinals back to sustained relevance for the first time in my young life. He led St. Louis to one World Series in 2004, won one in 2006. Between 2005 and ’09, he earned three MVP nods between 2005 and ’09, and I and every other fan of my generation developed an acute sense that with this guy in our city, we could do anything. The 2011 season—another World Series win, this one of the heart attack-inducing variety—solidified that belief. Pujols was a fan’s dream: a champion for kids with Down Syndrome, a keeper of St. Louis history, just so damn good at baseball.

And then he was gone, kind of. Pujols still keeps a home in St. Louis, still is active in his charitable work here and close with the Musial family. Those facts were a weird comfort at first, but they mattered less and less as the years passed and the roster turned over, as Pujols t-shirts faded from red to pink and were retired, replaced, relegated to sleepwear.

How has it been eight years? In moments, it seems like there’s no way, like Game 7 of the 2011 World Series was just a blink ago. But no, there’s Tony LaRussa, back in the building Friday night nearly a decade after his retirement from managing. There’s Walt Jocketty, the white-haired former general manager responsible for inking Pujols in the first place. There are Molina and Wainwright, who will both retire soon enough. The only other 2019 Cardinal who’s ever shared a dugout with Pujols is Matt Carpenter, who did so for just seven games and is now a veteran in his own right. Not a single coach from Pujols’s tenure remains in St. Louis, though the slugger did play three games alongside Stubby Clapp, who now mans first base, for the Memphis Redbirds in 2000. And then there’s Brad Ausmus, the Angels manager who’s rested Pujols three times already on this road trip, who also happened to be perched behind the plate for the most notorious swing of the slugger’s career, when he launched a Brad Lidge fastball to the moon in 2005.

It’s one of a million memories that still make St. Louis’s collective heartbeat quicken. Pity that baseball, and pity any team who faced No. 5 in his prime. But that prime has long passed, and St. Louis’s bitterness has subsided. Maybe Pujols gave up sainthood in this city when he left, but maybe watching him decline so sharply would have rendered him mortal here. The milestones in Los Angeles—his 500th home run and then No. 600 in 2017, his 3,000th hit last year—are nothing compared to the sense of possibility he carried with him in St. Louis, the narrow-eyed, tongue-protruding stare that more often than not meant a baseball was about to be knocked to high heaven and fireworks would explode out in center field at the ballpark his successes built.

That’s the Al-bert, Al-bert, Al-bert Busch Stadium cheered Friday night. The chant was less an incitement than it was a recollection—of a man who no longer exists, who will never be anything but worshipped here.