One of Those Weird Albert Pujols Nights

I arrived at Busch Stadium on the evening of May 31, 2011, a nervous and sweaty mess. That morning I heard reports of possible thunderstorms, and my mind instantly began to think about tornadoes.

Before you think my worries were flimsy, I had reason to be at least a little shaky: Just nine days prior, the southwestern Missouri city of Joplin was annihilated by an EF5 tornado. The cyclone killed 158 people and was part of a larger tornado outbreak from May 21 to 26 that destroyed parts of the American Midwest. These storms hit Minnesota, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma along with the Show-Me State. During those days I drove from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit to Chicago to Milwaukee to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. So as I drove Interstate 70 east from Kansas City to St. Louis under a purple sky, I had reason to be just a little watchful.

Then the skies brightened, and as I studied the designated fallout shelter areas at the Cardinals ballpark, which had opened just three years earlier, I felt another new sensation: absolute searing heat.

Nobody told me that in St. Louis, the mercury could climb near 90 in late May. I mean, I should’ve known that, but there I was, no longer nervous but still dripping in sweat. All this to say that this was probably around the time I purchased a big Boulevard beer and got over it.

Soon my eyes had refocused. I was checking out this ballpark, brick and brick red, all history and pride, overwhelming Midwestern pride. Everyone seemed to wear a white Cardinals jersey, and there were so many names on the backs of the shirts: Smith, Musial, Gibson, Cepeda, McGwire, and more than any other by far, Pujols. Albert Pujols had exactly 110 games left as a Cardinal.

It’s difficult now — in 2021 after he has been designated for assignment (in other words, cut) by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the team with which he has spent the last 10 seasons — to understand just how enormous of a figure, how singular a talent Albert Pujols was in 2011 in St. Louis. But maybe numbers can do the talking. Heading into that 2011 season, Pujols had spent 10 years as a Cardinal and had already collected 1,900 hits and 408 home runs. His batting average was .331, his on-base percentage was .426, and his slugging percentage was .624. He averaged a 172 OPS+ over that period, which is a way to measure a player’s offensive production against the rest of the league. A 172 OPS+ is outstanding. To put it another way, Willie Mays is arguably the greatest player in baseball history and eclipsed a 172 OPS+ five times in a 22-year career, while Pujols averaged that number in 10 years.

In fact, there are really just three major leaguers ever who belong in that same rarified conversation of “oh wow they’re so much better offensively than everyone else” as Pujols. One is Babe Ruth. The other two are Barry Bonds and Mike Trout; the former ended his career in Pujols’ prime, while the latter began his around the same time. That Bonds and Trout bookend Pujols might explain why we don’t talk about him the same way, why his insane prime — basically everything before he got to Anaheim — seems a little like a faraway galaxy. It doesn’t help that Trout also plays in Anaheim; while he’s the unfortunate victim on a team that fails to achieve playoff success, Pujols stands as the symbol of the team’s misfortunes, the over-the-hill slugger with a bloated contract.

Pujols was pretty good for half of the time in Anaheim. In his first five seasons there, from 2012 to ’16, he averaged 29 home runs per campaign while hitting to a respectable, but certainly not expected, .266/.325/.474 line. His final five years out west were pretty bad; he averaged 15 homers per season and hit just .240/.289/.405. But nobody saw any of that coming. You couldn’t look at Pujols’ 11-year output in St. Louis and think he’d suddenly begin teetering, then spinning his wheels, then completely falling off the cliff.

Then again, maybe the Cardinals saw it coming. Heck, this is the franchise of shrewd decision making, of stout development, of Branch Rickey, Walt Jocketty, and John Mozeliak, and of Whiteyball and Tony La Russa and the modern bullpen run completely amok. The Cardinals seem to know what they’re doing more frequently than most other clubs, so when they opted not to give in and offer Pujols a record-breaking contract after the 2011 season, maybe they were onto something.

Or maybe not. Maybe it was just too much money altogether. Either way, Pujols immediately started to show cracks. Still, one could look at 2011 as a weird campaign that maybe did show that Pujols wasn’t as godly a talent as he was before.

Proof? Again, maybe the numbers can do the talking. He hit .299, which meant that for the first time ever, he didn’t hit .300. In fact, his lowest pervious single-season average was .312 just the season before. Also, his on-base percentage was below .400 for the first time ever, and considerably at .366, while slugging percentage dipped into the mid-.500s (.541). Again, that rarely happened.

Pujols did hit 37 home runs, but he also walked just 61 times, a far cry from his usual 90 or so that he’d accumulate most seasons. He didn’t strike out too much, so maybe he was just suffering from unlucky batted ball issues. Nope: His .277 batting average of balls in play was lower than usual, but it wasn’t so low that it seemed anomalous. There were a few problems. First, the era of the pitcher had begun, and teams had begun to play him smarter — pitchers challenged him more, so he had to swing at pitches, and defenses employed shifts on him that cut out some of his easier hits. Also, injuries had finally begun to take their toll – maybe the bat speed wasn’t quite there, or maybe the swing wasn’t exactly the same. Whatever the case, Pujols wasn’t Pujols.

So, 2011 was weird. He refused to talk about the contract during the season even though every other day brought another round of rumors and discussion about his future. He couldn’t hit over the first month of the season, finding himself at .231 on May 3. But by May 11 he was at .270. He’d go down a bit, then back up, and then down again, before taking off in September and helping to push the Cardinals into the playoffs on the very last day of the season. Then he’d do very typical Albert Pujols things over three rounds of postseason play as his Cardinals won their second world championship in five years.

But I was at the game on May 31, 2011, Cardinals hosting the Giants, and this was weird for another reason entirely. On this sticky, sweaty evening, here was the lineup card that manager La Russa brought out for his Cardinals:

  1. Ryan Theriot – SS
  2. Jon Jay – RF
  3. Albert Pujols – 3B

I’ll stop there. Albert Pujols was playing third base. It wasn’t the first time he was doing it, and it wasn’t even the first time he was doing it that season, but it looked strange. Before this game, Pujols had spent just over nine innings at third base in 2011. And before that he hadn’t played there since 2002. It was reason enough to snap pictures of him standing out there like he was on an island, reason enough to ponder if maybe we were nearing the end of Pujols in that white Cardinals jersey.

Pujols had one chance over eight innings at the position. That’s pretty remarkable in itself, that he barely factored into the defensive story of the game despite his positioning being the story going in.

What wasn’t remarkable was that, in the eighth down 3-1 against the Giants’ Sergio Romo, Pujols stepped in with nobody out and a man on second and promptly doubled him home. Two batters later, he’d score to tie the game. Three batters after that, the Cardinals would snatch the lead from San Francisco. A few minutes later they’d secure the win, 4-3.

In the ninth inning, Pujols would go back to first base. He’d get to catch one ball, a throw from shortstop Tyler Greene. Just another day at the ballpark.

I’m not sure who knew just how many games Pujols had left in St. Louis at that time. I’m also not sure if anyone knew that he had already peaked, and that the rest of his career would slide precipitously and swiftly.

But I do know that in the deep heat of a late-May evening, an entire ballpark loved him, and that thousands wore his jersey and watched his every move, regardless of where it took place.