The St. Louis Cardinals welcomed Albert Pujols back to Busch Stadium for the first time since he left, and the experience was a sight to behold.
To a casual observer, this was just another interleague series in June. But to St. Louis Cardinals fans, this was a series eight years in the making. Cardinals legend Albert Pujols was finally returning. And what a celebration it was.
Pujols, nicknamed “The Machine,” was a force during his years with the Cardinals. From 2001 to 2011, he hit .328 with 445 home runs and 1,329 RBIs. He received three MVP awards, six Silver Sluggers, two Gold Gloves and nine All-Star appearances. After the 2011 season, he became a free agent after being unable to come to a salary agreement and eventually signed with the Los Angeles Angels, drawing the ire of many Cardinals fans.
But as they say, time heals, and anyone who thought Pujols would receive boos at Busch Stadium was quickly proven wrong. Before the series, Pujols sat down and held a press conference with the Cardinals’ media. He expressed gratitude for being able to play in St. Louis in front of whom he called the best fans in baseball, and he said he entered St. Louis as a boy but left as a man.
When Pujols stepped up to the plate the first time, he was greeted with thunderous applause. He and catcher Yadier Molina embraced, and Pujols tipped his cap to the fans who saw him put on a clinic for 11 years. The applause lasted for over a minute and only ended when Molina crouched back behind the plate and let the at-bat begin.
Shortly after Pujols’ first at-bat, an alarm rang out at Busch Stadium, leading to some fans starting to evacuate the premises. It was deemed a false alarm, and nobody seemed to let the distraction get in the way of the magical series that had just begun.
In the seventh inning of the second game, Pujols launched a pitch from Dakota Hudson over the wall for a solo home run to make the score 4-1 Cardinals. The fans at Busch Stadium went wild and did the unthinkable: They demanded a curtain call from an opposing player. Pujols complied, and the raucous applause grew even louder.
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As Pujols trotted around the bases and Molina playfully tossed dirt at him when he crossed the plate, Cardinals fans took in what will go down as a great moment: one last dinger from a man who gave them so many wearing the birds on the bat. Pujols later said that was the most meaningful home run he had ever hit besides the one in the 2005 NLCS.
Many former Cardinals remain stoic when they come back to Busch Stadium and receive applause from Cardinals fans. But Pujols took it all in and broke out into grins multiple times. It was refreshing to see, and it did the impossible and made him even more lovable.
If the smiles and the applause weren’t enough emotion, Pujols also had to leave the Angels’ dugout a couple of times because he was tearing up. The unfiltered expressions of joy and appreciation of the fans made everyone remember that as immortal as he may seem, Pujols is still a human and susceptible to emotions just like the rest of us.
Pujols came to the plate for the last time in the ninth inning of the third game, and the fans knew this was almost certainly it. Chants of “Albert” rose from the stands, and after he popped out, he gave one final curtain call. After the game, Pujols and Molina swapped jerseys and embraced once more, giving the few fans left one last memorable moment.
Were this game to take place several years earlier, the reaction might have been much different; fans who had been hurt by his departure could have given him a piece of their minds. But instead, the fans made his homecoming special, and Pujols made sure to show his gratitude.
Near the end of the last game, Pujols recorded a short video expressing his appreciation for the reception and the fans. While three days of wild applause can’t make up for 11 years of legendary production, Pujols’ final display of sincere appreciation showed that the fans had done enough.
This series was emblematic of what makes Cardinals baseball special, and it was a beautiful celebration of one of the best players ever to put on a Cardinals uniform. While Pujols has now spent nearly half of his career with the Angels, it is now clearer than ever he will be an eternal Cardinal in the hearts of fans.