JUPITER, Florida – Adam Wainwright remembers exactly where he was on that sad December morning when the best striker of his generation left the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I was on the golf course, at hole 4 of Frederica Golf Club at home, when I found out he signed with Angels,” said Wainwright, who lives on St. Simons, Georgia. “It was a life – a changing, changing moment, how great it was.”
That was in 2011, just after Albert Puyols won his second championship with the Cardinals. A day like Monday, when Puyols signed a $ 2.5 million deal to return to St. Louis for the farewell season, seemed impossible. He was 31 when the Angels gave him $ 240 million to play for them for the next decade, plus a personal services contract for another decade after his retirement. It looked like a lasting outpouring of a perfect fit.
“Was it a sad day, a gloomy day?” Said John Moseliac, president of the cardinal’s baseball operations, on Monday morning. “Yes, for sure. But in this industry, especially in baseball, you have to keep thinking ahead. You have to wait ahead.”
And so both sides rose forward and parted, with neither attempting a title again. Without the Cardinals, Pujols made only two trips to the postseason. Without the Pujols, the Cardinals made seven, but reached just one World Series, losing six games to Boston in 2013.
Pujols collected important moments along the way: his 500th and 600th home runs and his 3000th shot. He is the only player to achieve these figures in his career with at least two championship titles.
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However, leaving St. Louis marked a clear dividing line and Puyols’ worst season with the Cardinals was better than his best for the Angels. And yet, as he maintained his family foundation in St. Louis, Pujols always felt connected.
“I felt, yes, I could wear a different uniform, but I had the feeling that I had never left,” he said, adding that he often returned for charity events. “People still treat me the same way, whether I’m wearing a cardinal’s uniform, whether I’m wearing Angels or Dodgers, they never change. This is what is special about Cardinals fans. They love you when you wear their uniform, but they still love you because you are part of this organization. ”
Now – as the oldest player in the major, at 42 – Puyols is officially back, largely because of his performance after the Angels released him last May. Pujols joined the Dodgers and played in 85 games, scoring .254 with 12 home runs. Overall, he hit leftists with 0.603 percent of the breakout. With the designated striker in the National League now, Pujols can make an impact.
“Oh, he has something left,” said Oliver Marmol, the Cardinals’ first-year manager. “It simply came to our notice then. Albert wants to play this year because he can help the team win. ”
The Cardinals, who lost to Pujols’s Dodgers in a NL wild card game last October, will open the season without two of their better young pitches, right-hander Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes, who have shoulder injuries. But the team has signed two players with a free agent – left-hander Stephen Matz and right-hander Drew Verhagen, who has revived his career in Japan – and still has hunter Yadier Molina, 39, leading the team.
Molina and Puyols have stated emphatically that this will be their last season, and the 41-year-old Wainwright said he is also leaning in this way. All three are royalty in St. Louis, with the Pujols bringing a particularly regal look to an organization that prides itself on tradition.
“This organization has never closed the door to me, just as I have never closed the door to the organization,” Puyols said. “It’s just a great opportunity.”
Molina and Wainwright were eager to reunite with the Pujols, harassing him regularly on FaceTime for his plans. When Pujols arrived at the team’s spring training complex on Monday, he found Wainwright dozing off before the start and woke him up with a sword hug. During the match, the fans roared as Puyols walked from the right corner of the field to the dugout of the Cardinals. He smiled so as not to cry.
“I’m quite an emotional person,” Puyols said. “It doesn’t take that long.”
Puyols played 76 games at first base last season, but realizes he will not replace Paul Goldschmidt from the Cardinals, a four-time Golden Glove winner and one of the most reliable players in the league. Puyols said he would do whatever Marmol wanted and hoped to mentor young players the way teammates like Placido Polanco and Edgar Renteria did for him as a rookie in 2001.
Wainwright sees this already happening. After leaving on Monday, he noticed that some younger players were getting dressed to leave for the day. When these players saw Pujols and Molina head to the cotton cage, Wainwright said, they changed back into training clothes and left together.
Pujols can offer intangible assistance in this way through its guidance and example. But he did not sign to be ambassador. Pujols returns with a goal.
“Every time Albert is motivated,” Wainwright said, “it’s a very, very dangerous thing.”