TEMPE, Ariz. — It was 20 years ago when Albert Pujols strolled into the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring-training complex for the first time, sharing a locker in a cramped clubhouse, and in awe while surrounded by major-league stars.
He was just a 21-year-old kid, and with only one season in the minors, figured if everything went well, he could open the year in Class AAA.
“I was the guy that wasn't even supposed to make the team,’’ Pujols tells USA TODAY Sports. “I got invited to spring training just to be around the big-league guys. I never thought I was going to make the team. But I'm a guy that if you open a door, you’re going to get the best out of me, and that’s what I did."
Pujols had a monster spring, 38-year-old veteran Bobby Bonilla pulled his hamstring, and Pujols was on the opening-day roster. He hit .329 with 37 homers, 130 RBI and a 1.013 OPS in his rookie season, and proceeded to become one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history.
Pujols, a three-time MVP who finished among the top five in 10 seasons, and two-time World Series champion, enters what could be his final season with 662 home runs, 2,100 RBI, 3,236 hits, and 1,843 runs. He ranks fifth all-time in homers, and trails only immortals Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in RBI.
Pujols has yet to decide whether he will retire after this season, but it’s the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels, with a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract when he hangs them up.
“I’ll make that decision at the end of the year,’’ he said. “And when that times comes that I do retire, it won’t be on Instagram or anything like that. My fans deserve better than that. I’ll have a press conference so everyone knows at once.
“But my mind isn’t going there right now.’’
Pujols sat down this week with USA TODAY Sports in an expansive 90-minute interview, providing his opinions, emotions and sentiments of his 20-year major-league career.
Question: This is the 20th year anniversary of your major-league career, what do you remember the most about that spring?
Pujols: “I haven’t shared this story with a lot of people, but I was sharing a locker with Gene Stechschulte, this big right-handed pitching prospect. As soon as you walked into the Cardinals’ clubhouse, I was right there to the right. So one day, we had only like 12 days left, and I walk in and my locker isn’t there. I was like, 'Oh, man, I got sent down.’ I was like, 'Oh well, I had a great spring, and I loved the experience being around the guys.'
“So I went straight to (Cardinals manager) Tony’s (La Russa) office and said, 'Hey I just want you to know how grateful I am. Thank you for the experience that you gave me. I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity.' Well, Tony’s face is confused, like, 'What are you talking about?’ Finally, he says, 'Hold on, Albert, stop. What’s going on?' I said, 'Oh, I just got sent down.’
“He said, 'What?’ He jumps out of his chair, goes in the clubhouse, and says, 'What the heck is going on.' He was pissed. Well, that was my first rookie mistake. It turned out they moved my locker to the left side where they had all of the guys who made the team. They put me in between Placido Polanco and Edgar Renteria. That was a true story.’’
EXCLUSIVE CLUB: Will Pujols keep playing to reach 700 HR?
Q: You will forever be idolized in St. Louis, do you ever have regrets leaving the Cardinals after the 2011 season and signing with the Angels as a free agent?
Pujols: “You know, everything happens for a reason. No regrets. I know how hard they worked to try to keep me, and how hard I worked to try to stay there, but at the end of the day, it just didn’t work out. I don’t regret it. It was the best for both of us. People say, 'What would have happened if you stayed in St. Louis?’ My best numbers are in St. Louis, but it probably would have been worse if I stayed since I had those injuries, and they don’t have a DH.
“But I love that city. Those people were great to me. And they’re still great to me 20 years later. I came there as a little boy and left as a grown man. Our lives will always be blessed being in St. Louis.’’
Q: What was it like when you returned for the first time in 2019 when the Angels played the Cardinals?
Pujols: “That was one of the best experiences, maybe the best, of my career. I’ll never forget that. I mean, it didn’t shock me that I’d get a standing ovation in my first at-bat there, but did I think 13 or 14 standing ovations? No. That’s Cardinals Nation, man. That’s how loyal their fans are. There's something about Cardinals’ fans."
Q: Have you talked to Nolan Arenado what to expect now playing in St. Louis after leaving Colorado?
Pujols: “When everything was going down I went to his batting cage and his warehouse a couple of times. I actually spoke to him the day that trade went down. I told him, 'If that deal goes down, you better not miss that opportunity. You are going to love it. You’re never going to see anything like it.'
“I’m just so happy for him because he’s such a cool dude. Cardinals Nation is going to fall in love with that kid. I hope he tears it up out there. Hopefully, he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself, but the fans know what kind of player he is.’’
Q: Would you like to play for the Cardinals one last time, particularly if the National League adopts the DH?
Pujols: “That's like the million dollar question. Everybody asks me that. Hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is the last year of my contract, and I feel like I can play. I feel good. My body feels great. Mentally, I feel like I can continue to play. But I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. Who knows?’’
Q: If you decide during the season you will retire after the season ends, would you announce it ahead of time to have a farewell tour?
Pujols: “I don’t think I’m ever going to think this is it. My mind is not there. … But why announce something right now, and if I have a great year, decide I want to keep playing. So I don’t want to deal with that.’’
Q: In your 20-year career, who is the best player you ever played against?
Pujols: Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter by far.
Q: The most feared hitter?
Pujols: “Barry Bonds.’’
Q: Most athletic player?
Pujols: “Larry Walker.’’
Q: Best overall player?
Pujols: “Mike Trout.’’
Q: Your favorite teammates?
Pujols: Placido Polanco. Edgar Renteria. Fernando Vina. Mike Matheny. Woody Williams. Yadier Molina. Jimmy Edmonds. Jimmy and Placido probably helped me the most in my career. Darryl Kile. Mike Trout. Mark McGwire, playing with him his final year, was really special.’’
Q: Do you stay in touch with McGwire?
Pujols: “I was just over at his house, hitting with his boys. You should see his son, Max. He’s 17. I’m telling you right now, remember this day, that kid is going to be a star. He’s built just like his dad with quick hands, athletic, unbelievable.’’
Q: Your favorite stadium?
Pujols: “Pittsburgh. PNC Park. That place is gorgeous. On a beautiful summer night, there’s nothing like it. It helps that I have good numbers there too.’’
Q: Favorite road city to visit?
Pujols: Seattle. It’s just so beautiful. I like going to Miami too, but I don’t go there enough now being in the American League.’’
Q: How is it playing with Mike Trout, are your personalities similar at all?
Pujols: “He’s more fun because he laughs all of the time. I’m more serious. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get serious. He’s just a kid that wants to have fun where I was more serious about how I go about business. But you can tell how much he cares. He wants to win, man. Hopefully, we can win a championship together before I retire.
Q: And talent-wise?
Pujols: “That kid’s a pretty special player. I joke around with him and say can you imagine if we had our prime time years together, my time in St. Louis and yours now? It would probably be the best duo together in the history of the game.’’
Q: Do you think Shohei Ohtani can still be a two-way player in the major leagues or does he need to decide whether to be a pitcher or position player?
Pujols: “I know if anyone can do it, he can. He has done it his whole life. Last season, with the short season, if I was a manager I would have just left him in one spot, either as a DH or as a pitcher. In a 162-game season, it’s just so much work. I think it might benefit him just being in one spot. But I’ll tell you this, he can freakin’ hit. That guy can hit 30 home runs, but he’s not going to be able to play every day if he’s pitching.’’
Q: Is it painful not having been able to win a World Series or even get close for your owner, Arte Moreno?
Pujols: “It is, I wish we would have won one, but it’s not over. We still have a chance. It’s not his fault we haven’t won. He’s given us great teams, and given us a great product, but it’s up to us to perform. He has invested so much into this organization. He can’t control what we do in the field. If people want to blame anyone, blame the players.’’
Q: Have you thought about what you may do when you retire?
Pujols: “I don’t know what the future holds for me, but if I ever had that opportunity to manage or coach, I think I’d be interested. Why not? I’d like to take some time off, travel a little bit out of the country, particularly Europe. I want to be around my kids. I want to spend time with my son, AJ. (who attends Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California), and help him with his pro golf dreams. But I would like to stay in the game.’’
Q: OK, when you are elected into the Hall of Fame, do you wear a Cardinals’ cap, Angels’ cap or no cap?
Pujols: “I get that all of the time. I don't want to get ahead of myself. I don’t want to offend anyone.’’
Q: You ever think about the possibility of going into the Hall of Fame the same time as your best friend, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina?
Pujols: “I always tell him, let’s finish together. Let’s retire together. That would be awesome. I remember when he came up in 2004, and his father and mother told me, 'This is my young little boy and I want you to treat him like your little brother.' And that’s what I’ve done.’’
Q: Do you cringe when you hear critics questioning whether he’s a Hall of Famer?
Pujols: “That’s a joke. You kidding me? He’s the greatest catcher of his time. It’s not even close. Defensively, he might be the greatest of all time. Some of these people don’t appreciate greatness, they just look at numbers on their computer.
“I always tell people the Cardinals could afford to let me go, but they couldn’t afford to let Yadi go anywhere else. That pitching staff and that organization would never have the success without Yadi. He’s meant everything to that organization.’’
Q: Did you offer advice or convince him to return to St. Louis when he was a free agent this winter?
Pujols: “No, I never talked to him about that. I left it alone because I went through that and the last thing that I wanted was people getting in my head and tried to tell me what to do.’’
Q: What was the best advice you ever received?
Pujols: “It was from Tony La Russa. Never change. Don’t take anything for granted. You have to earn everything. Nothing is given to you.’’
Q: How special was it seeing La Russa in a White Sox uniform this week with you two hugging on the field before the game, and then getting two hits?
Pujols: “Tony is awesome. I love that man. He is like a dad to me, a big brother, a mentor. He’s so genuine. He cares so much about his players, and that’s what I shared that with (Jose) Abreu. I told him, 'You’re going to see right now what a true manager is.' I know there was a lot of question marks, 'Can he do it because of his age? Can he get along with these young players?’ Come on, he didn’t have the success he had because of experience. He had the success because he’s freaking great.
“I remember when he called me, I was playing golf, and he was thinking about it. He says, 'Albert, I need to share something personal with you.’ I told him that would be awesome. He asked 'How should I approach these guys?’ I said, 'Tony, just be you. Those young guys will love being around you.’’’
Q: So much has changed in the game since your rookie season, what do you like the most and what do you like the least?
Pujols: The biggest change I’ve seen is the analytics stuff. Don't get me wrong, I mean there's some good things to learn there, I just think it’s becomes a problem when you take those gifts and talent and wisdom from human beings and trying to rely on computers and numbers. I don’t think the computer can tell you how to be mentally strong and tough."
Q: What are your thoughts on the theory now that RBIs are overrated?
Pujols: "When I hear these guys say that on TV, I want to puke. I mean, tell me, how do you win games? By scoring the most runs? How do you score runs, you drive them in. It’s crazy that people actually believe that. Believe me, it’s not easy driving in 100.
“It’s like strikeouts now. Guys punch out 200 times and people act like it’s no big deal. It should be embarrassing. I don’t know, I don’t understand it. I guess I just came along in a different era.
“Maybe I need to sit down with one of those analytics people and let them explain it to me, to make me think different than I think, and show me the way they look at it. But right now, I’m telling you, the way they present it doesn’t make any sense.’’
Q: Any other pet peeves?
Pujols: “Yes, all of the rule changes, taking away good hard slides into second base and the catcher. And instant replay. They invested millions of dollars in this, and it still isn’t right. Why have it? We’re all human beings. The players are going to make mistakes and the umpires are going to make mistakes. You learn from them.
“You hear the talk about an electronic strike zone one day. That’s crazy. It’s a game played by humans. It should be umpired by humans.’’
Q: Do you like starting extra-inning games with the runner on second base?
Pujols: “I don’t like that at all. I just think it ruins the beauty of the game. You play the game a certain way for nine innings and then it changes? It’s like when they talk about pace of the game. I can understand how it can be frustrating somewhat to fans, but the fans that have the passion and love this game, it doesn’t matter if it takes 10 hours to play.’’
Q: Would you ban the shift in baseball?
Pujols: “Yes, definitely. I know you always want to have an edge on winning a game, but this has hurt a lot of players. You have so many hits taken away from great hitters, just like you don’t see some of the athleticism of great infielders because someone is standing just a few feet away.
Q: You’ve played 11 years in the National League and nine in the AL, which style of baseball do you prefer?
Pujols: “I’ve missed the action in the National League and the strategy. But I enjoy the DH. I would love to see the DH in the NL, too, especially the next few years until we get things back to normal. I think it gives more players an opportunity. I look at a guy like Edwin Encarnacion. He has (424) homers in his career, and now he’s out of the game? I think if we have a DH in both leagues it opens up more room for guys like Edwin and younger ballplayers. There would be 15 more jobs out there.’’
Q: What do you think about teams locking up young players to huge contracts like Fernando Tatis’ 14-year, $340 million deal with San Diego, just like when you signed an eight-year, $111 million contract after two years with the Cardinals?
Pujols: “I think it can be great for the players and the organizations, knowing they can build around a guy. It can be good business because at the end of the day, it’s probably going to cost them more if they wait and hit free agency. If you took my first 10 years, and what I would be paid today, it might be $500 million. So if you’re a club, why not take that chance on a young guy you believe in?’’
Q: When you leave this game, how do you want to be remembered?
Pujols: “I want to be remembered as being one of the best teammates anyone ever had, a guy who gave it his all. No regrets. ... It’s like what Tony told me, 'Play every game like it’s the last game of the World Series.’ And that’s what I’ve done. God blessed me with a great opportunity and I never wanted to let him down.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale