PHOENIX — We sat down for 20 minutes Saturday afternoon, and Albert Pujols insisted he wouldn’t change his mind about retiring after this season, no matter how close he was to the glorious 700-home run club.
Well, as it turns out, it may be a moot point.
The St. Louis Cardinals icon promptly went out and hit two home runs into the Phoenix night at Chase Field – just missing a third – as part of a 4-for-4 night that saw him pass Hall of Famer Stan Musial for the second-most total bases in baseball history.
It no longer may be whether Pujols can possibly reach 700 home runs, but rather: how soon will he do it?
“Yes,’’ Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said, “he’ll do it.’’
The way Pujols is hitting these days, with five home runs in his last five games for 692 overall, who would dare disagree?
He didn’t have a single homer in June and had only six the first half of the season, but he's hit six home runs alone since Aug. 10, more than the combined total of seven entire teams.
Pujols, who has 13 homers for the year, is now five home runs shy of eclipsing Alex Rodriguez for fourth place on the all-time home run list, and eight away from 700 where only three men have ever gone before: Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).
Pujols, 42, is suddenly looking like the same guy who terrorized the National League in his first 11 years. He went 4-for-4 with two homers and two singles in the Cardinals’ 16-7 laugher over the Arizona Diamondbacks, becoming the first player to produce four hits and two homers at the age of 42 or older.
While the rest of the baseball world may be feeling the effects of the dog days of summer, Pujols suddenly is invigorated. He’s hitting .438 the second half with a ridiculous .918 slugging percentage. The all-time slugging percentage record for a second half is .908 by Barry Bonds when he hit a record 73 homers in 2001.
“It’s just unbelievable watching him,’’ Cardinals All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “When we got him, I knew he was going to help us win games, but honestly, I don’t know where we’d be without him.’’
Well, the Cardinals have got just a couple of months to figure it out because no matter what transpires the rest of the season, Pujols insists he’s calling it a career after the Cardinals’ final game.
“I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t get caught up in numbers. If you were going to tell me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have told you that you’re freakin’ crazy. My career has been amazing.’’
So, nothing will change your mind?
“If I can’t hit 70 homers, I’m not coming back,’’ Pujols said, laughing. “No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement this was it when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.’’
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Pujols, who didn’t even have a job when spring training started, came awfully close to spoiling this Hollywood story. He had three other job offers, and at least one that was going to pay him significantly more than the $2 million the Cardinals eventually offered, with others promising more playing time.
But once the Cardinals called, the job search was over.
He packed his bags and was in the Cardinals’ camp by the next morning, preparing for his farewell tour.
“I took obviously a lot less money and less promises,’’ Pujols said, “but this is where I want to be. This is where I wanted to finish my last year, and thank God he allowed me to have this door open to come here to finish my career."
While everyone else might have thought it was simply going to be a ceremonial joy ride into the night, Pujols had other ideas.
“It’s been awesome having the opportunity to come back to St. Louis where everything started for me 21 years ago,’’ he said. “This organization believed I can help. It wasn’t just come back to celebrate my last year, it was knowing I can help. That means a lot to me.
“It’s pretty special to help this organization win every way I can, and enjoying my last path through this city.’’
It was the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pujols said, that re-energized him. He was released by the Los Angeles Angels last May in the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract. The Dodgers, even with no DH in the National League last year, decided to give him a chance. Pujols became a pinch-hitter deluxe, hitting .254 with 12 homers in 189 at-bats to help lead the Dodgers to the postseason.
“I had so much respect for that organization, so much respect for the players, and was so blessed to have the opportunity to be back in the playoffs,’’ Pujols said. “It kind of really excited me to come back and play this year because they gave me the joy, gave me that thrill of being back in the postseason.’’
Now, it's just like 2011 all over again. Pujols has the Cardinals sitting atop the National League Central with a five-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, feeling like he’s a kid again.
He hit a 437-foot homer off veteran lefty Madison Bumgarner in the second inning, a 429-foot homer in the fourth inning, and nearly homered again in the sixth when the ball left his bat at 109.4-mph, caroming off the left-field wall.
He even tried to steal second base in the sixth inning, was barely thrown out, and produced another single in the seventh inning.
He was a one-man show.
“I feel really good to tell you the truth,’’ Pujols said. “I really didn’t know what I could do, but I know I put in a lot of hard work with the gift the Lord has given me. I didn’t know what the year would look like, but what I could control was dedication and hard work.
“Because of that hard work, I’m able to get better, stay healthy, and accomplish a lot of things in this game that a lot of players have never done.’’
Pujols, who will go down as one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, can’t even keep track of all his accomplishments. Chris Conroy, the Cardinals’ assistant trainer, constantly brings in baseballs for Pujols to sign and authenticate, with Pujols asking what just happened.
On this night, the historic achievement was passing Musial, the Cardinals’ all-time great, in total bases (6,141) for second place behind only Hank Aaron (6,856). And yes, Conroy got the baseball with the home-run ball bouncing back into the field.
“It’s just crazy, every day that I go to a game,’’ Pujols says, “they’re asking for a baseball. I say, 'Ok, what is this for?' They say, 'oh, you just tied or passed so-and-so.' I’ll say, 'What, I didn’t know that. I swear, I’m not B.S.’s you, I have no idea.'"
He was quite aware of the history of this milestone, though.
Musial has a huge statue at the entrance of Busch Stadium. He was Pujols’ mentor and idol when Pujols came up with the Cardinals, and Pujols was moved, even a bit emotional, that he was the one to eclipse Stan the Man.
“Just to be mentioned in the same sentence is awesome,’’ Pujols said. “What he has done for this organization is pretty incredible. I’m sure he’s looking down and smiling on me.’’
Now, there’s one magical milestone left. It’s the one everyone in baseball talks about. The 700-home run club, the most prestigious fraternity in all of baseball.
“We talk about it all of the time when he’s not around,’’ Arenado says. “I mean, 700 home runs? That’s something hardly anyone has seen. It’d be pretty special.’’
While everyone is transfixed on 700, Pujols will tell you he’s more proud of a number no one talks about these days: He has 2,187 career RBI. The only men in history with more RBI are Aaron (2,297) and Ruth (2,214).
“That’s the number that means everything to me,’’ Pujols said. “That’s how you win games. It takes four walks to get an RBI. It takes one homer to get at least one, or a base hit.
“That’s how you win, scoring runs. If somebody comes up to me and says that RBIs are overrated, I’ll tell them they are freaking crazy.’’
The dream, of course, is for Pujols to leave the game with the ultimate prize, another World Series championship. He already has two rings, with plenty of room for another. Yet, no matter what transpires the final six weeks, no matter whether he hits 700 homers, no matter how far the Cardinals advance into October, he’s leaving the game with an impeccable reputation and a plaque reserved for him in Cooperstown.
He played the game clean, played it right, and respected the game every moment he has stepped onto the field.
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Who else would be OK being pinch-hit for by a rookie with a a right-hander on the mound, with the crowd of 34,248 loudly booing the hometown kid, Nolan Gorman, and offer encouragement as he stepped to the plate? When Gorman delivered a single, guess who was on the top step of the dugout wildly cheering?
It was a moment that Gorman will never, ever forget. He’ll be able to tell his kids, grandkids, and great grandkids that there was an August night, with 150 friends and family members in attendance, when he pinch-hit for the great Hall of Famer.
“It was awesome,’’ said Gorman, who has an autographed jersey from Pujols. “That’s all I was thinking about was getting this job done for Albert.’’
That’s Pujols, the ultimate teammate, role model and ambassador.
It hurts him when he sees players like Fernando Tatis Jr. busted for performance-enhancing drugs knowing that their careers are stained forever. He hopes that Tatis and others who have been suspended for PEDs can be forgiven, but knows they’ll never again be viewed the same.
“I don’t judge people, but it saddens me to see that being from the same country, the Dominican Republic, and the mistake the guy made,’’ Pujols said. “It doesn’t make you a bad person, but you made a bad choice. All it takes is a bad choice and it just stinks to see that not just for them, but for baseball and the people in our country.
“I’m on the radar just like everybody else, but there’s a huge responsibility you have to carry with you,’’ Pujols added. “That responsibility I have with God has helped me have the success I’d had. I know there’s a lot of people, a country that has followed me throughout my career, and I want to make them proud.’’
Mission accomplished, 700 homers or not.
“No matter what happens, buddy,’’ Pujols says, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had an unbelievable career. How blessed am I?’’
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