His ascent from obscure draft pick to consensus top player in the league came so rapidly, it’s hard to imagine 11 years ago when Albert Pujols was an unproven, modestly hyped rookie who was battling with Bobby Bonilla for the last spot on the roster.
It makes one wonder how in the hell we got to where we are.
With his pending free agency beginning just days after winning his second World Series championship in St. Louis, there’s no better time to reflect on the stages of being Pujols fan than when we’re unsure what the next one will be…
Cardinals fans didn’t know much about him when he started tearing up spring training in 2001. Albert wasn’t in the minors long enough to develop Colby Rasmus-style cult status as the next big thing, he just burst onto the scene almost straight out of juco.
When he made the team, we had to remain cautious, even though he started off his career looking as if he was playing with an aluminum bat. Only a few months prior to Pujols’ debut, Rick Ankiel went from the second coming of Sandy Koufax to a Steve Blass headcase within a few days, so Cardinals fans were on their heels when it came to players who looked too good to be true.
After he dropped a .329 average, 37 HR’s, 130 RBI, a 1.013 OPS and unanimously won the Rookie of the Year in the NL, it was safe to say most people were excited by the prospects of what this kid could do. But with a full year for pitchers to create a book on him, it was only logically to taper our expectations a little bit for season two. He was going to be a solid player, but surely he couldn’t dominate like he did the previous year.
Then the season started the same way the last one ended, with Pujols hitting safely in 13 of the first 15 games. There was something about his swing that just wasn’t normal. It never slowed down, there were no spots it couldn’t get to, balls rocketed off of it into open spaces on the field.
By October of Year 2, we were looking at another impressive stat line – .314, 34, 127, .955 – and an appearance in the NLCS.
Baseball-reference.com was showing the names Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Frank Robinson under the heading “Similar Batters by Age” and the crazy part was that people who watched him hit every day had to concede that the comparisons, while still premature, sort of fit.
If you’re like me, when Rocky III ended and everyone’s favorite punch drunk Italian had proved victorious once again, you thought to yourself “there’s no way it will get better than that.” And then they break out Rocky IV with its giant, steroid-infused, cold-war-promoting Russian monster and you realize you were wrong. It can get better.
Pujols was Rocky IV in 2003.
He hit .359, had 43 HR’s with 124 RBI and an OPS of 1.106. He led the NL in batting average, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, runs created, extra base hits, and ripped off a 30 game hitting streak. He finished second behind Barry Bonds in the MVP race, partially because the shoddy Cardinals pitching staff kept them out of the playoffs.
St. Louisans were in officially in love with him.
Throughout Year 4, his dominance over NL pitchers didn’t miss a beat. Though his individual numbers didn’t improve from this third to fourth year – .331, 46, 123, 1.072 OPS – they remained at a level that fueled the resurgent Cardinals to a runaway win in the Central.
That gave way to the next chapter in the growing legend – postseason dominance.
In his first three years, the Cardinals had made the playoffs twice and, while he wasn’t a no-show, he certainly didn’t carry his regular season success into October. All that changed in ’04 in what was a Roy Hobbs-esque postseason run, including his jaw dropping performance in the NLCS against the Houston Astros.
When the dust cleared the numbers were sickening. Pujols batted .500 and hammered 4 homeruns in the series. His slugging percentage was an obscene 1.000. It was like Pujols just lifted up the Cardinals franchise by the back of the neck and flung them into the World Series.
He wasn’t just a promising young player anymore, he had become Albert Pujols.
By the time 2005 came around there wasn’t a whole lot that Pujols could do to make the people in Busch Stadium think more of him.
Pujols was it. He was the Bill Brasky of baseball. He peed singles and crapped doubles. Give him a 32-ounce Louisville Slugger and a bottle of Fruit Punch Gatorade and he could have demolished old Busch Stadium by himself in under an hour.
By October of 2005, he was already far and away the biggest name in St. Louis sports…and then Game 5 of the NLCS happened.
One out away from elimination, facing the nastiest closer in the game and he drops a 450-foot bomb off Brad Lidge to keep the series alive. It was a surreal moment, yet for Cardinals fans it was almost expected at the same time. At that point, we were forced to just throw up our hands and shake our heads.
What more could this guy do?
How do you follow up an MVP season in which you hit the most dramatic postseason homerun since Ozzie Smith’s in ’85? There’s nowhere to go but down right?
Well, you could go on a world class terror over the first month of the season, setting the record for most homeruns in April, putting yourself on a pace to not only break Barry Bonds’ single season homerun record, but also to challenge Hack Wilson’s RBI record all the while being responsible for 33% of your team’s runs. That’s not a bad encore.
An oblique injury interrupted his start, limited him to only 143 games played and helped bring the final numbers back from the stratosphere but it was still enough for a second-place finish in the MVP voting.
With him serving as the centerpiece of the lineup, the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs with just 83 wins, but went on a binge and cruised past the Tigers for their first World Series in 24 years. It was their first of the “Pujols Era” which – now in terms of both individual and team accomplishments – was rapidly approaching territory only occupied by the “Musial Era”.
Every sports movie needs a montage. That’s just a fact. Even the ones based in reality. For Pujols, after the World Series ring was in hand, it was only a matter of what else could be done. He’d reached the pinnacle as an individual player and now on a team level.
Cue the montage music:
Two more MVP awards, another Gold Glove, two more seasons leading the NL in homeruns, three more leading the NL in OPS+, six consecutive seasons leading the league in WAR, topping 400 career homeruns and 2,000 hits…There was no sign of slowing down heading into 2011.
Then as the media frenzy around the offseason contract negotiations took a break with the season commencing, Pujols stumbled out of the gates, seemingly throwing it all in question.
Was it age? Was it stress? What the hell happened to this guy?
Just as Cardinals fans began convincing ourselves that we were watching was a “subpar” Albert Pujols season, that he was on the downside of his career, that paying him truckloads of cash would be a mistake, he gradually morphed into the same guy we’d seen for 10 years. His splits of .299/.366/.541 and power numbers (37HR, 99RBI) were low, but only by his inflated standards.
And to make sure any doubters found what they were looking for, he saved his most dynamic stretch of the season for the miraculous run to the postseason and postseason itself. He posted a line of .478/.556/.913 in the NLCS, served up perhaps the greatest single game performance in World Series history in Game 3 and tossed in a 9th inning double that kicked off the first of two miraculous Game 6 rallies just as a bonus.
We just watched as a few strokes of the bat served as a neat summary of how valuable Albert Pujols has become to the Cardinals franchise.
Like every good storyline, there has to be some drama added in. Some twist that makes the audience uncomfortable. And as we all rejoin reality over the next few weeks, we’ll settle in to impatiently watch how the Albert Pujols tale unfolds.
He’s the best player in the game. He’s officially a legend in the Cardinals uniform. For the first time, he’s a free agent. And he wants a lot of money to compensate him accordingly for those things.
The next Stage has two possible options for Pujols’ career as a Cardinal: The New Beginning or The End.
The clock is ticking again.