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 might be a moot point.
The icon of St. Louis Cardinals promptly went out and hit two home runs on Phoenix’s night at Chase Field – missing just a third – as part of a 4-4 night that saw him pass Hall of Famer Stan Musial for second place. most total bases in baseball history.
It may no longer be whether Pujols can hit 700 home runs, but rather: how soon will he do it?
“Yes,” said Cardinals coach Oliver Marmol, “he’s going to do it.”
The way Pujols is hitting these days, with five home runs in his last five games for 692 total, who would dare disagree?
He didn’t hit a single home run in June and only had six in the first half of the season, but he has hit six home runs alone since August 10, more than the combined total of seven entire teams.
Pujols, who has 13 home runs for the year, is now five home runs away from beating Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time list, and eight off the 700, where only three men have done it before: Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).
Pujols, 42, suddenly looks like the same guy who terrorized the National League in its first 11 years. He went 4-for-4 with two homers and two singles in the Cardinals’ 16-7 laugh over the Arizona Diamondbacks, becoming the first player to produce four hits and two homers aged 42 and over.
While the rest of the baseball world may be feeling the effects of the canine days of summer, Pujols is suddenly invigorated. He’s hitting 0.438 in the second half with a ridiculous 0.918 percentage. The all-time slugging percentage record for a second half is 0.908 by Barry Bonds when he hit a record 73 homers in 2001.
“It’s just unbelievable to see him,” said Cardinals All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado. “When we got him, I knew he was going to help us win games, but honestly, I don’t know where we would be without him.”
Well, the Cardinals only have a few months to figure it out, because no matter what happens the rest of the season, Pujols insists he’s calling it a career after the Cardinals’ last game.
“I’m still going to retire, no matter if I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,” Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t get stuck on numbers. If you were to tell me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have said you’re 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 that 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 began, came very close to ruining this Hollywood story. He had three other job offers, and at least one that would pay him significantly more than the $2 million the Cardinals eventually offered, with others promising more playing time.
But as soon as the Cardinals called, the job search was over.
He packed his bags and was at the Cardinals’ camp the next morning, getting ready for his farewell tour.
“Obviously, I took a lot less money and fewer promises,” Pujols said, “but this is where I want to be. This is where I wanted to finish my senior year and, thank God, he allowed me to have this door open to come here and finish my career.”
While everyone might have thought it would simply be a ceremonial joy ride through the night, Pujols had other ideas.
“It was amazing to have the opportunity to come back to St. Louis, where it all started for me 21 years ago,” he said. “This organization believed I can help. It wasn’t just coming back to celebrate my senior year, it was knowing I can help. That means a lot to me.
“It’s very special to help this organization win in every way I can and enjoying my last ride 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 without DH in the National League last year, decided to give him a chance. Pujols became a luxury hitter, hitting .254 with 12 homers in 189 hits to help lead the Dodgers into the postseason.
“I had so much respect for this organization, so much respect for the players, and I was so blessed to have the opportunity to return to the playoffs,” Pujols said. “I was really excited to come back and play this year because they gave me the joy, they gave me that thrill of being back in the postseason.”
Now, it’s 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 he’s a kid again.
He hit a 437-foot homer from veteran leftist Madison Bumgarner in the second inning, a 429-foot homer in the fourth inning, and nearly scored again in the sixth when the ball went off his bat at 109.4 mph, slamming into the left. field wall.
He even tried to steal second base in the sixth inning, barely got sent out and produced another single in the seventh inning.
He was a one-man show.
“I feel really good about telling the truth,” Pujols said. “I really didn’t know what I could do, but I know I worked really hard with the gift the Lord gave me. I didn’t know what the year would be like, but what I could control was dedication and hard work.
“Because of this hard work, I’m able to improve, stay healthy and accomplish many things in this game that many players have never done.”
Pujols, who will become one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, can’t even keep up with all of his achievements. Chris Conroy, assistant coach for the Cardinals, constantly brings Pujols baseballs to sign and authenticate, with Pujols asking what happened.
Tonight, the historic achievement was overtaking Musial, the Cardinals’ all-time all-time high, in total bases (6,141) for second place behind only Hank Aaron (6,856). And yes, Conroy caught the baseball with the home-run ball bouncing back onto the field.
“It’s crazy, every day I go to a game,” says Pujols, “they ask for a baseball. I say, ‘Okay, what’s that 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 BS’s you, I have no idea.'”
He was quite aware of the history of this landmark, however.
The Musial has a huge statue at the entrance to Busch Stadium. He was Pujols’ mentor and idol when Pujols came up with the Cardinals, and Pujols was moved, even a little emotional, that he was the one who eclipsed Stan the Man.
“Just being mentioned in the same sentence is amazing,” Pujols said. “What he has done for this organization is incredible. I’m sure he’s looking down and smiling at me.”
Now, a magic landmark remains. 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 the time when he’s not around,” says Arenado. “I mean, 700 home runs? This is something that hardly anyone has seen. It would be very special.”
While everyone is stuck at 700, Pujols will tell you he’s most proud of a number no one talks about these days: he has a career RBI of 2,187. The only men in history with the most 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 a homer to get at least one, or a base hit.
“That’s how you win, scoring races. If someone comes to me and says RBIs are overrated, I’ll say they’re crazy.”
The dream, of course, is for Pujols to walk away from the game with the ultimate prize, yet another World Series championship. He already has two rings, with plenty of room for another. However, no matter what happens over the past six weeks, no matter if he hits 700 homers, no matter how far the Cardinals advance in October, he’s leaving the game with an impeccable reputation and a plate reserved for him in Cooperstown.
He played fair, played straight and respected the game every time he took the field.
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Who else would look good getting hit by a rookie with a right handed on the mound, with the crowd of 34,248 loudly booing hometown boy Nolan Gorman and offering encouragement when he steps on the plate? When Gorman delivered a single, guess who was on the top step of the bench clapping wildly?
It was a moment Gorman will never forget. He will be able to tell his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that there was an August night, with 150 friends and family in attendance, when he gave the great Hall of Fame a pinch.
“It was amazing,” said Gorman, who has an autographed Pujols shirt. “That’s all I was thinking about doing this job for Albert.”
This is Pujols, the best teammate, role model and ambassador.
It hurts when he sees players like Fernando Tatis Jr. arrested for performance-enhancing drugs, knowing their careers are forever tarnished. He hopes that Tatis and others who have been suspended for PEDs can be forgiven, but knows they will never be seen the same again.
“I don’t judge people, but it saddens me to see this being from the same country, the Dominican Republic, and the mistake the guy made,” Pujols said. “That doesn’t make you a bad person, but you made a bad choice. All it takes is a bad choice and it’s bad to see that not just for them but for baseball and the people in our country.
“I’m on the radar like everyone else, but there’s a huge responsibility you have to carry with you,” added Pujols. “This responsibility I have to God has helped me to have the success I have. I know there are 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, buddy,” says Pujols, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I had an unbelievable career. How blessed am I?”
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This article originally appeared in USA TODAY: Albert Pujols approaching 700 home runs, insists he’s still retiring