Cardinals: What it was like watching Albert Pujols play in-person for the last time
A lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, Ben Remis reflects on what Albert Pujols has meant to an entire generation.
In the game after Albert Pujols hit his 700th home run, the St. Louis Cardinals took on Clayton Kershaw and lost badly. Batting second, Pujols went 1-4 with a single and two strikeouts. A disappointing box score, but I was lucky enough to be at Dodger Stadium and see it. The game after he made history, of course, but still! I got to see Albert Pujols.
While it has yet to sink in yet, the more important realization is that I may have just seen my favorite player in person for the last time. As someone fortunate enough to have this amazing platform, I feel it’s necessary to say a few words.
Growing up in St. Louis, it is impossible not to be a fan of the Cardinals. Anyone who has been to our fabulous city knows this. And as someone who has always loved sports, I was suited wonderfully to be part of Cardinals Nation.
My grandparents got to see Stan Musial at Sportsman’s Park. My parents witnessed Whiteyball and all of its great excitement. Well, I got to grow up with Yadier Molina behind the plate, Adam Wainwright on the mound, and batting third and playing first base, No. 5, Albert Pujols.
One of my earliest memories is sitting at Busch and watching Pujols. In particular, it’s a three-home run day against the Cincinnati Reds, capped by a walk-off. I was only six years old, yet I can picture that afternoon to this very day. The ball sailing away from our seats, arcing out towards left field. Every time I watch a baseball game, especially in person, I’m taken back to the magic of that performance.
For me, baseball was the greatest thing in the world. Busch Stadium meant family, the Cardinals, and a sense of pride of where we came from. And for a kid born in 2000, the magic force pulling it all together was Pujols.
I don’t have many memories of Pujols leaving for the Angels. Somehow I’ve blocked out the first few Matheny years, focusing instead on Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday and the group who tried to replace Pujols. I was only 11 the offseason he left, so I didn’t really appreciate the nuance of the whole situation. It was disappointing, for sure, but baseball moved along.
Then last year, I was walking to class when an alert on my phone changed everything: the Angels were releasing Albert Pujols. Immediately, everything came flooding back. Nothing mattered except one thing: No. 5 was available. I sat in the back of class and wrote the fastest, most passionate plea I could. I convinced myself that he would be helpful for a contending team. The Cardinals just had to bring him home.
That feeling carried with me through the offseason. Something had been awoken inside me, this great adoration for Albert that I forgot was there. He’s one of the greatest Cardinals ever! The most fearsome hitter of my lifetime! A window to my childhood had been unlocked, and I grabbed a hold, desperate for a homecoming that had always seemed impossible.
A startling realization finally hit me: it’s pretty special to grow up with one of the greatest players of all-time in a batter’s box twenty minutes from your backyard. Not many kids get to say that, but I don’t think I understood how lucky we were. I imagined every team (except for the Cubs, of course) had someone at least close to Albert’s level.
Of course, we all know what’s happened since. Oli Marmol’s lineups are scanned for one name and one name only. Pujols’ at-bats have become must-see TV. And the 2022 St. Louis Cardinals find themselves as one of the most exciting teams in baseball. When Pujols came up to bat Friday night against poor Phil Bickford, you just knew number 700 was on the way. I can’t explain it, but it was meant to be.
Now, late in the season, I’ve had another chance to reflect on the power of this sensational homecoming. Because against the backdrop of a magical baseball season, this year marked many big changes in my personal life. Pujols was on his way back to St. Louis, but I was busy graduating from Wake Forest University, and ultimately, moving away to Los Angeles. To make a long story short, this summer has been scary and difficult and full of questions.
Amidst all the change, however, one constant has been Cardinals baseball. Every single day, they take the field and connect me back to my hometown. Some nights they are rolling, and everything seems possible. Other times, they can’t put a ball in play, and are disappointingly dull. But no matter what’s going on in the league around them or how the previous game unfolded, the Cardinals show up the following evening and take the field again.
I’m always appreciative of how competitive and entertaining the Cardinals have been over the course of my lifetime. But this season, I’ve gotten one last chance to watch my childhood icon as he creates history, putting on a show each night like none seen before. I’ve tried to enjoy every last minute of this year, reading and watching and soaking up as much as I can.
Right now, however, No. 5 is stealing the spotlight. On a team full of personality and superstardom, all eyes are on Pujols. He’s an inspiration, both on and off the field. It’s not surprising to see the standing ovations and signs and big cheers, but I absolutely love how he’s been welcomed back with open arms. I hope my adventure in LA goes a little smoother than his, but if he can take the journey west and make it back in one piece, then surely I can, too.
While fans across all generations have marked this season as the end of an era in Cardinals baseball, for many young adults my age, it’s the end of a spectacular 22 years in St. Louis.
Like most people my age, I’ve long given up the hope of playing baseball in the big leagues. Even still, Pujols represents what we all aspire to become. How he withstands the grind of a difficult season. How he learned from his travels far away and fought to overcome great obstacles. Now, watching him come home to earn a heroes send-off. Knowing he’ll be remembered as a legendary player, but also a legendary person.
So, as I leave Dodger Stadium and head into the LA traffic, I feel nothing but gratitude for this moment. The opportunity to watch Albert play baseball in my backyard one more time. This 2022 season has been a special one, full of countless memories and milestones and unbelievable moments. When the sun sets on the last baseball game in early November, we’re all hoping the Cardinals walk off the field as champions. But for now, as we watch this incredible team, “The Battery,” and No. 5 take the field together for the final few times…
All I can do is smile.