Coming off a World Series championship, my St. Louis Cardinals fandom could not have been at a higher level. A key driving force in that series win, other than David Freese's walk-off home run in Game 6 against the Texas Rangers, was my favorite player, first baseman Albert Pujols. Pujols had just led the Cardinals to their second title in his 11-year tenure there and was easily the most recognizable face from that team in the city of St. Louis and to all Cardinals fans around the country.
Following the 2011 season, Pujols hit the open market becoming a free agent. I remember the feeling at the time being that both Pujols and the Cardinals would get something done and a contract agreed upon to bring the franchise legend back to finish his career where it all started. But the Angels, at the time based in Anaheim, swooped in with a whopping 10-year, 240 million dollar offer that Pujols simply could not turn down.
Pujols' departure stung to me and all the thousands of Cardinals fans. Just months before, Pujols had given me one of the more memorable moments of my life, winning the World Series just four months after my dad had passed away. I remember standing in my bedroom as the Cardinals lifted the trophy above their heads in celebration and receiving texts from friends and family members who said, "Your dad would have enjoyed this." It was true. His excitement would have been heard all up and down our county road that we were living in at the time. That's what sports has always done for me, giving me moments that always reflect back to a much larger picture. That moment I felt was what countless others felt that night too but to receive the news that Pujols was gone to Los Angeles was one that left me shocked.
Pujols was easily my favorite player growing up. It was not even a close competition. Like I said, my dad raised me to be a Cardinals fan. I grew up idolizing Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and all the other Cardinals that played in my adolescence but there was this young guy coming up, who started out playing left field as McGwire's career was coming to an end, that won over my heart. As a rookie, Pujols made waves with his play, even so to the point I began to go out into my front yard and imitate his wide-based stance with those high-lifted elbows and pretend I was him. I was infatuated with everything about Pujols. So to come to grips with the fact he was leaving my favorite team was hard for me and other Cardinals fans as well.
Personally, I never became bitter about Pujols' decision to move on. Heck, I don't think I could turn down that type of money with that much long-term security to stay and take a hometown discount. But many others were mad at how it ended. Maybe they were more mad at the front office for not insuring Pujols more years or more money to keep him in St. Louis but in the end it all worked out. The Cardinals have remained competitive in a tough National League Central division. Pujols and the Angels have struggled to make any noise in the American League West, despite having the best player in baseball on their squad in Mike Trout.
So Pujols' first return to Busch Stadium this past weekend for the first time in an Angels uniform was perfect in the fact that it gave enough time for those who were mad over the whole situation to heal so that we could honor and respect what he has done for our franchise.
As I watched all three games, I sat at the edge of my seat, waiting for Pujols to come back to the plate. Each time the three-time MVP stood in the box, he was greeted with pompous cheers from the Cardinals faithful in attendance. He deserved that. Even though I knew it was coming, to see the look in his eyes and how much he appreciated the fans who cheered him on, gave me chills every single time.
To me, Pujols is the greatest Cardinals player ever. Others can make valid arguments about Stan Musial, Bob Gibson or Lou Brock but regardless of your stance, it was undeniable what Cardinals fans think of him. That was on display this past weekend in what was probably the last time that Pujols ever plays in Busch Stadium again.