Albert Pujols

How Albert Pujols returned to the Cardinals

With 10 days remaining before the Cardinals’ 2022 season opener, Adam Wainwright was in the clubhouse taking a pregame nap when suddenly he was jolted awake by a “giant man on top of me giving me the biggest hug ever.”[1]

Albert Pujols was back with the Cardinals.

On March 28, 2022, after 10 seasons on the west coast with the Angels and Dodgers, Pujols agreed to a one-year contract worth $2.5 million plus incentives to return to St. Louis.

“This organization never closed the door on me and I never closed the door on this organization either,” he said. “It’s just a great opportunity.”[2]

Pujols’ first stint with the Cardinals was the stuff legends were made of. A 13th-round draft pick out of Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods, Pujols spent one season in the minors before making the major-league roster out of spring training in 2001. It marked the beginning of an 11-season run that included the National League Rookie of the Year Award, nine all-star appearances, six Silver Slugger awards, two Gold Gloves, the 2003 batting title, and MVP trophies in 2005, 2008, and 2009. Along the way, Pujols and the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011.

After the 2011 championship, however, Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels. Pujols continued to reach significant milestones, collecting his 500th and 600th home runs and his 3,000th career hit with the Angels, but he never reached the same heights he enjoyed in St. Louis. Leg injuries and then age slowed the big man down.

Pujols was in the final year of his contract, batting just .198 with five homers and 12 RBIs, when the Angels cut him in May 2021. He signed with the nearby Dodgers, where he was used as a power bat off the bench. Facing primarily lefthanded pitchers, Pujols hit .254 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 204 plate appearances.

The 2022 season offered a unique opportunity for Pujols to return to St. Louis. After almost 50 years of use in the American League, Major League Baseball introduced the designated hitter to the National League that offseason.

With lefty-swinging outfielder Corey Dickerson signed to a one-year deal and righthanded-hitting rookie Juan Yepez set to make his big-league debut, the Cardinals had the makings of a platoon at the new position. However, the 24-year-old Yepez was just 3-for-16 without an extra-base hit that spring at the time of Pujols’ signing.

“We’re wanting to give Yepez the most opportunity and see what we got there,” first-year Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said one day before Pujols signed. “Has he performed the way he’d like to? No. Is he carrying himself in a way that gives us the belief he can do a good job? Yes. We want to see as much of that as possible. We’ll see a decent amount of at-bats for him moving forward.”[3]

Behind the scenes, Wainwright and another veteran Cardinals star, Yadier Molina, were pushing for Pujols’ addition. In fact, Molina was video chatting with Pujols at 6 a.m. Sunday, March 27, as contract negotiations were being finalized.[4]

By the following day, it was official.

“This reunion with Albert was a wonderful opportunity, for not only him and the Cardinal organization, but for our great fans and the city of St. Louis,” team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “The players and staff and everyone connected to the Cardinal organization looks forward to seeing Albert with the birds on the bat.”[5]

Pujols didn’t wait long to make his first public appearance. Wainwright had just completed the first inning in his spring training outing against the Astros when the right-field gate at Roger Dean Stadium opened and Pujols walked onto the field and toward the dugout. The stadium – and Pujols’ new teammates – applauded.

“I felt like, yes, I might be wearing a different uniform, but I felt like I never left,” Pujols said. “The people still treat me the same way, whether I was wearing the Cardinal uniform, whether I was wearing the Angels or the Dodgers, they never change. That’s what’s so special about the Cardinals’ fans. They love you when you wear their uniform, but they still love you because you’re part of this organization.”[6]

With Pujols’ announcement that 2022 would be his final season, prices for the Cardinals’ home opener skyrocketed and there also was a run on tickets for the Cardinals’ final home games of the season – the final regular-season game for Pujols and Molina. The Cardinals catcher also had announced that 2022 would be his final campaign.[7]

“He will do amazing things in his last year,” said former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after Pujols signed. “There’s no doubt in my mind. He did it last year with the Dodgers. He will rise to the occasion – and he’s got two legs to stand to hit now, which hasn’t been true for years. I went to see him when he was playing with the Angels a couple of times and he would pull his pant leg up and his knee was swollen like a basketball.”[8]

“I think he’s motivated,” Wainwright said. “Any time Albert’s motivated, it’s a very, very dangerous thing. He’s motivated to show people he’s not too old and he’s not over the hill. I don’t think he wants it to be just nostalgia. I think he wants to go out and prove something.”[9]

Arenado, who hit with Pujols in Southern California during the offseason, said the veteran’s presence off the bench would be a game-changer for the Cardinals.

“He’s still got a lot of power, and he’s still scary,” Arenado said. “Nobody wants to go up there and face Albert Pujols. I don’t care who you are. Everybody knows in the back of their mind that when that guy steps up to the plate, damage can be done. And that’s a pretty uneasy feeling. I feel like last year we didn’t have that as much … and now we have him. It’s going to play a huge difference for us.”[10]

Arenado may have even underestimated Pujols’ impact on the 2022 season. Playing in 109 games, the 42-year-old posted his highest OPS (on-base plus slugging) since 2011 and his highest home run total since he blasted 31 in 2016. Across 351 plate appearances, Pujols hit .270 with 24 homers, 68 RBIs, and an .895 OPS.

At the all-star game (the 11th of his career), Pujols was celebrated by his peers, and the summer showcase seemed to invigorate him. After batting .215 with six homers and 20 RBIs in the first half, Pujols hit .323 with 18 homers and 48 RBIs after the break. Along the way, he hit his 700th career home and passed Alex Rodriguez for fourth on baseball’s all-time list.

“What I’m doing right now, that was something that, when I signed here, I was really looking forward to – helping this organization,” Pujols said.[11]

By season’s end, Pujols was a mainstay in the Cardinals’ lineup, playing a key role alongside National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt and fellow all-star Arenado.

“Obviously growing up he’s one of my favorite players ever and to be in a Cardinal uniform with him it’s a pretty surreal moment,” Arenado said. “Growing up watching him with the Cardinals, watching him hitting homers with the Cardinals – I’m in a Cardinals uniform and I get to play with Albert Pujols, one of the greatest Cardinals ever.”[12]

Pujols wasn’t only successful on the field, but he also appeared to enjoy the season more than ever before. Known for his singular focus during his first run with the Cardinals, Pujols seemed more relaxed and more willing to share his knowledge than ever before. Pujols even pitched an inning in a nationally broadcast 15-6 loss to the Giants.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson described Pujols’ new attitude this way:

“Pujols returned happier, quicker to smile and laugh. He called himself the grandpa of the club. He embraced a limited role and then expanded it with his production, never griping about at-bats that did not come his way.

“He taught by example before. He did again this season, but it was accompanied with bear hugs and arms thrown over shoulders. Not to be forgotten along with the records that will stand in baseball history forever are the images of Pujols laughing while pitching in a blowout, wrapping Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright in dugout embraces, and mentoring whatever young hitter came his way.”[13]

On October 2, before their final regular-season home game of the season, the Cardinals held a brief pregame ceremony honoring Pujols and Molina. When Wainwright, that day’s starter, was removed from the game with two outs in the fifth, Marmol took the opportunity to remove Pujols and Molina as well. Together, the three stars who had defined much of the Cardinals’ 21st century walked off the field.

“The moment was great, just to walk with Albert and Waino next to me,” Molina said. “It was a great moment for baseball, I think.”[14]

After helping the Cardinals win the National League Central Division to qualify for the Wild Card Series, Pujols held true to his word and retired. His 22-year career included a .296 batting average, 703 home runs, and 2,218 RBIs. Pujols will be eligible for the Hall of Fame beginning in 2028.

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[1] Jeff Jones, “‘This is it for me’: Pujols to play final year with Cardinals,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 30, 2022.

[2] Tyler Kepner, “For Albert Pujols, One Last Run Where It All Began,” New York Times, March 28, 2022.

[3] Derrick Goold, “Pujols returning to the Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 28, 2022.

[4] Jeff Jones, “‘This is it for me’: Pujols to play final year with Cardinals,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 30, 2022.

[5] Jeff Jones, “‘This is it for me’: Pujols to play final year with Cardinals,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 30, 2022.

[6] Tyler Kepner, “For Albert Pujols, One Last Run Where It All Began,” New York Times, March 28, 2022.

[7] Derrick Goold, “This Is My Last Run,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 29, 2022.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Back Where It Began,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 30, 2022.

[9] Derrick Goold, “This Is My Last Run,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 29, 2022.

[10] Derrick Goold, “This Is My Last Run,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 29, 2022.

[11] Ben Frederickson, “You Can Go Home Again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 2, 2022.

[12] Derrick Goold, “This Is My Last Run,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 29, 2022.

[13] Ben Frederickson, “You Can Go Home Again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 2, 2022.

[14] Rick Hummel, “A big send-off for Pujols, Molina; Waino struggles,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 3, 2022.

2 thoughts on “How Albert Pujols returned to the Cardinals”

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