ST. LOUIS — Albert Pujols, driving his black Rolls Royce Phantom on I-64, takes exit 40 towards 6th Street, and heads into the players’ parking lot at Busch Stadium.
Pujols’ route doesn’t take him past Clark and 8th Street, where tens of thousands of fans flock for every St. Louis Cardinals game, taking pictures and even getting teary-eyed.
This is where nine statues of Cardinals’ players are lined up for fans to pay homage: Enos Slaughter, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith and Ted Simmons.
The great Musial meant so much to the franchise that he is the only one with another, 100 feet down on 8th street, standing 10 1/2-feet tall atop an 8.5-foot marble pedestal, gracing the entrance of Busch Stadium.
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There’s plenty of room on the sidewalk for more statues, and perhaps one will stand just as tall, proudly alongside Musial.
It will be the honoring legendary Pujols, who will be forever remembered as one of the greatest and most popular players to ever don a Cardinals uniform.
“I don’t think a lot about that to tell you the truth,’’ Pujols tells USA TODAY Sports. “Maybe I would if I drove past the statues every day, but I can hardly see them when I come into the garage.’’
Pujols stares ahead, momentarily allows himself to vision it, and abruptly stops.
“I don’t want to look into the future,’’ he says, softly. “I just let it happen. I’ll wait for my moment to come.
“And when that moment comes, I’ll enjoy it.’’
Pujols, 42, is playing in the final postseason of his 22-year career, beginning Friday afternoon against the Philadelphia Phillies in a best-of-three wild-card series at sold-out Busch Stadium.
When the teams line up for introductions, Pujols will get the longest ovation. When he comes to the plate for the first time during the game, he’ll get another one , as fans grab their cell phones and take pictures for posterity. They’ll do the same thing every time he comes to bat.
It has been like this all season, even when he was badly struggling the first half and was little more than a pinch-hitter. It has now grown into almost a spiritual experience with Pujols enjoying one of the greatest second halves by any player in baseball, hitting .323 with 18 homers, 48 RBI and a 1.103 OPS.
“My first year was 2011, so basically I never saw him at his peak,’’ says Cardinals MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt, “until now. Someone told me, 'What you’re seeing now, the second half was basically his average the first 10 years of his career.’ It’s unreal.’’
“The highlight for me so far this year is watching Albert working in the cage, honestly," Goldschmidt says. “We saw him struggle. We saw a sneak peak behind the scenes on what adjustments he made. We saw how he handled failure, how he handled success, how he kept his performance up, how he dealt with the pressure of chasing 700.
“It’s something that will stick with me for a long time.’’
“For me, one of the coolest moments of the year,’’ says Game 2 starter Mike Mikolas says, “was when he came to ask me a question about baseball in the dugout. I said holy [expletive] Albert Pujols is asking me a question about baseball. Are you kidding me? He is asking me a question? This guy knows more about baseball than anyone I can even imagine.
“It was about pitching, but for him to ask me a question, how cool is that?’’
Mikolas just wishes someone was around to film it.
“That’s why I’ve got to get a baseball or two signed by him before this is all over,’’ Mikolas says. “I want people to believe that I know the guy.’’
This is the reverence and admiration that Pujols draws these days. It’s as if those desolate 10 years in Anaheim, Calif. never happened.
Now he’s back again with midnight getting pushed back, the Cinderella story continuing, and no one wanting the ugly reality to get in the way.
“It’s been awesome,’’ Pujols says. “I always talked about wanting the opportunity to come back to St. Louis where everything started for me 21 years ago. It’s pretty special, helping this organization win every which way I can.
“I’m just so glad I could do it for these people, because I’m telling you, they mean so much to me."
It didn’t have to be this way, of course. Pujols never had to leave in the first place after leading the Cardinals to the 2011 World Series title. He could have stayed when he became a free agent and rejected the Angels’ 10-year, $240 million contract. But come on, who in their right mind was going to leave $90 million on the table?
If Pujols stayed, maybe the Cardinals could have won more championships, as teammate Adam Wainwright suggests. Maybe he would have passed Barry Bonds and become the all-time home king instead of finishing with 703 homers, fourth-most in history.
“Who knows,’’ Pujols says. “I thought about it, but it doesn’t do any good now. This was God’s plan. God put me in the right place at the right time. I had so many lower-half injuries, I needed to play in the American League with a DH.’’
Well, the baseball gods – at least MLB and the players association – intervened this winter when they decided to implement a universal DH. If not, Pujols would never have returned to St. Louis. He would have taken one of the other offers proposed to him, one he was close to accepting when the Cardinals called in spring training.
Pujols returned to St. Louis and never looked back. Now, fans are flocking to the team store to buy his 2022 jersey even though they have a closet full of old ones.
“To me, he’s like LeBron James, like Michael Jordan, like Muhammad Ali,’’ says Alex Rodriguez, who watched Pujols pass him for fourth on the all-time homer list in September. “He’s like all of the great ones. There’s a specific seriousness, a commitment, and a resiliency about him.
“From Day 1 when he was a rookie, he conducted himself like a 10-year veteran. He never gave an at-bat away. He studied. He cared about the game, every facet from hitting to baserunning to defense, the total package.
“To go out in a place where he’s the modern-day Stan Musial, and to do it in a record-breaking fashion on a playoff team, I mean it’s the perfect storybook ending.’’
There’s a postseason series to win against the Phillies. If they do, they go to Atlanta to play the defending World Series champions in the NLDS.
“Man, I missed that feeling of playing this time of year,’’ Pujols says. “These guys have given me the joy, the thrill, of being back in the postseason. This is what we play for.
“This is why I came back."
If Pujols had retired, or gone elsewhere, the Cardinals say they’d be sitting at home with him. It’s that simple, Cardinals president John Mozeliak emphatically says. They don’t make the playoffs without him.
“We've had different people contributing in different types of ways this year,’’ Mozeliak says, “but what Albert has done in the second half has been remarkable.’’
It wasn’t just his bat that led the Cardinals to the postseason, but his presence with teammates saying he is their inspiration to make sure this is a season to remember.
“That’s been our mindset since spring training,’’ Goldschmidt says, “it’s gotten us this far. We’d love to send him out the right way.’’
No matter how long St. Louis lasts in the postseason, this new generation of Cardinals fans who never witnessed Pujols in his prime are understanding why he’s considered one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
“It’s really almost generationally moving,’’ Mozeliak says. “These young kids who didn’t get to see him play before, now have this love for the Cardinals again.
“For 11 years in St. Louis, he was probably one of the greatest hitters on earth. Rarified air. He goes away, comes back, and all of a sudden, he’s putting the team on his shoulders and carrying us. You watch what him do what he’s doing, and it’s simply magical.
“It reminds you of what greatness is. It’s something we probably dream about, we wish we could achieve it, but very few of us ever get there.’’
Pujols has gotten there. Once again.
“I can’t even explain what this means to me,’’ says Pujols, with two commemorative champagne bottles to the left of his locker, and six bobbleheads and a fishing rod to his right. “Maybe one day when it’s all over, but not now. I can’t.
“All I can tell you, buddy, is that I’ve been so very blessed.
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