A few months prior to the start of the season, rumours of Albert Pujols returning to St Louis began to swirl, and I surprisingly had quite a measured reaction. Now, as it’s just you and me here, I will be honest with you. I am a big sucker for this kind of stuff. I love a hero coming home or a redemption story worthy of a Disney movie, but I sort of shrugged. It would be nice I guess, I thought. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would actually happen. When it did, I cast my mind back to the early 2000s, Britney and Usher were top of the charts, and everyone was skinny and carefree. Life was good. This piece started as one article looking back at how it felt to be a Cardinals fan when Pujols left St Louis in 2011 and then how it feels now he is back. However, it turns out that there was a lot more to say about this than I initially anticipated, so I have split this into two articles. Here is part one:
Hero to Heartbreaker.
Pujols made his debut with the St Louis Cardinals in 2001, and let me tell you, he came out swinging. He played 161 regular-season games with a batting average of .329, an OPS of 1.013 and came fourth in the NL MVP vote. The crazy thing is that he only got better.
A decade later in 2011, it was inconceivable to imagine St Louis without our number 5. After three MVP wins and two World Series titles, he was the face of the franchise and absolutely everywhere in the city. There was a giant mural downtown, a restaurant with a statue of him outside, and he even married a woman from Missouri. Surely, he couldn’t go anywhere else? But, on the 30 October 2011, days after winning an unbelievable World Series title and before that afternoon’s parade and celebration in downtown St Louis, Pujols entered free agency. Discussions in St Louis about this moment had been happening all year, yet the club’s position seemed to suggest that they weren’t willing to blow the bank on arguably baseball’s best hitter.
The feeling in St Louis at the time (as it always is when a club legend threatens to leave) was mixed. There were those who thought that the Cardinals should pay whatever it took to keep Pujols at the club, and then there were others who felt that the prudent running of the club’s finances shouldn’t be jeopardised. The St Louis Post Dispatch claimed on the 24 November 2011 that the Cardinals had offered Pujols a $198 Million, nine-year deal back in January that year but had not and were not willing to negotiate further on the deal and were willing to offer arbitration to him.
His last season in St Louis (2011) was the worst of his illustrious ten-year career. His stats were career lows across the board, including his lowest ever SLG (.541) and OPS (.906). It was also the first time that his batting average dipped below 3.00 (2.99) and he posted his highest number of double plays hit into at 29. Many may not have wanted to admit, but there was a feeling that after a decade in St Louis, Pujols was past his prime, and it was possibly right to not overcommit financially to watching the great man decline.
On Thursday, 8 December 2011, Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, $254 million deal which took him to Anaheim. The next ten years were fine… I guess. His stats were all below his St Louis averages: (BA .256 with LAA/.327 with STL, 222 HRs with LAA, 449 with STL, 783 RBI with LAA/1344 with STL). While he was with the Angels, he only returned to the postseason once. This all culminated in the 2020 season, where he only made 40 appearances and was released.
Pujols then found a convenient home on the other side of LA with the Dodgers and laid the groundwork for the role he would later perform back in St Louis. More importantly, it seemed like Pujols was enjoying himself again and even began to show signs of a resurgence hitting lefties for .306 and hitting 12 homers in a very limited role. He also began to take on his role as an elder statesman in the clubhouse. Clayton Kershaw described his role to the New York Times (2 October 2021) as, “as soon as he got here, he embraced his role, which has been so huge for us. I think we needed that. We needed that older veteran. He calls himself Tio; we call him Tio, that uncle-type helping everybody out with hitting but also being a guy who is happy for you when you do well, smiling in the dugout.”
This (and the addition of the DH position to the National League) all laid the groundwork for the biggest thing to happen in St Louis since Nelly set his Hot in Herre video in the Arch. Five was back.
Jennifer Annely is the St Louis Cardinals correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. Follow on Twitter @JenniferBarnes8