Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Homecoming: Albert Pujols Returns to St. Louis

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back home. – Pascal Mercier
There is something about being a baseball fan – a loyal, devoted lifelong fan of one team – that connects us to certain players in ways that are beyond comprehension to the non-fan. The players who wear the uniform of our team become part of our extended family. Like our siblings and our children, they are the ones we root for every day, who disappoint us regularly and give us immense joy when they do well, and to whom we confer unconditional love and grace and forgiveness. The players we grow up with become the heroes of our youth and fill us with lasting memories of a simpler, more innocent time, when our concerns were not the complex dimensions of complicated lives, but the happenings on expansive fields of green grass and dirt basepaths. As we grow older, the players we root for become adjuncts to our dreams of what might have been, if only we had the skill and luck and fortitude to have been good enough to play baseball for a living.

I grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals when Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda and so many other idols of my young life – the players whose baseball cards I longed for and who I searched for in the daily box scores, the names I wrote into the lineups of my Strat-O-Matic Baseball games through middle school and high school – inspired me to dream of major league glory. These were the memories of my youth, and they remain the memories I return to whenever I think back on the joys and heartbreaks of childhood.

As I enter my seventh decade of life, I am amazed at the extent to which I continue to rely on these youthful memories, and how certain players even today continue to catch my imagination and remind me of what I so much love about the game. For eleven seasons starting in 2001, Albert Pujols was the player who captured my attention and restored my faith in the game at a time when the demands and pressures of everyday life frequently interfered with the trivial passions of my youth. Although he was not selected until the 13th round of the 1999 Major League Draft, with 401 players picked ahead of him, by the spring of 2001, Pujols so impressed the Cardinals in pre-season play that they had no choice but to include him on the major league roster. He was the National League Rookie of the Year that first season, batting .329 with 37 HRs and 130 RBIs. He repeated or exceeded this performance for the next ten seasons, a uniquely talented ballplayer playing for a city that understood just how special a player he was.

For eleven years, Pujols was among the best players to ever play the game in St. Louis, a Dominican version of Stan “the Man” Musial. No one since Musial had produced the numbers that Pujols did in those first eleven seasons, when he batted a collective .328 and hit 445 home runs. Like Musial, Pujols was a line drive hitter of incredible consistency. In St. Louis, they called him El Hombre (“The Man”) because, like Musial, he was a once-in-a-lifetime player.

When Pujols left the Cardinals after their World Championship season of 2011, it was like losing a family member. When I learned he had signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels that off-season, I was shocked and heartbroken. For Cardinals fans, the hurt and bitterness that followed was not entirely rational, for nothing about being a baseball fan is rational. It is all about feelings, emotions, magic and destiny.

I am certain there are many complicated reasons why Pujols left St. Louis to play for the Angels, but it seemed at the time that it was all about the money. For slightly less compensation, he could have stayed in St. Louis and been the most revered player in Cardinals history. But he is a proud and complex man, and in the high-profile, high-pressured world of modern-day professional baseball, there are inevitable slights and misunderstandings along the way. When he left the Cardinals, I convinced myself it was just as well. Age would eventually encumber his skills, and with time he would become less productive and a burden on the team.

But that was eight years ago, and time has a way of softening one’s outlook. When I learned earlier this year that Albert Pujols would return to St. Louis in late June for a three-game series with the Angels, I asked (okay, begged) Andrea if she would mind traveling to The Promised Land – uh, I mean, St. Louis, Busch Stadium to be precise – for an extended weekend of baseball in America’s heartland. Something compelled me to be there for Pujols’ return, for after eight seasons apart, it was time to relive and come to terms with the lapsed memories and suppressed emotions that Cardinals fans everywhere needed to confront. Time heals, and a reconciliation, a public group therapy session, was needed to bring closure to the pain and hurt and misunderstandings of this modern-day Prodigal Son.

“Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there,” wrote the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon. On June 21, 2019, for the first time since he left eight years ago and never looked back, Pujols returned to Busch Stadium. For each of the three weekend games, every time he came to bat, he encountered wildly enthusiastic, standing ovations from 48,000 cheering fans. On Friday evening, the second largest crowd in Busch Stadium history turned out on a day that had experienced heavy rains and a tornado warning to welcome back El Hombre and convey how much he meant to them. When Pujols came to bat in the top of the first inning, everyone rose to their feet, politely at first, then to a growing crescendo of cheers and whistles – 48,423 baseball fans collectively expressing that we forgive you for leaving us, we appreciate what you gave us, and we thank you for giving us the best years of your career. As I took it all in, suddenly I was flooded by a wave of emotions and memories, as if acknowledging the return of my long, lost brother.

Yadier Molina, the Cardinals catcher and Pujols’ best friend, stood several feet in front of home plate to give the crowd time to pay tribute to El Hombre, who initially ignored the cheering as he dug into the batter’s box, kicking the dirt around home plate with his head down and bat in his right hand. Finally, Pujols stepped back and lifted his helmet to the crowd, circling to acknowledge everyone and gesturing to the Cardinals dugout, all to the crowd’s utter delight. When Molina started back towards home plate to resume play, Pujols patted him on the chest and he and Molina embraced – friends and brothers re-united. The crowd fell apart.

I felt the tears forming and my chest tightening as I thought of what once was, what might have been, and what it means to come home after a long, silent absence. I thought of the people no longer in my life, who left the world involuntarily, but who I wished at that moment could be there with me – my older brother Steve, who taught me how to play ball and let me play with him and his friends in the backyards and sandlots of our youth; my father, who accepted my irrational love of the Cardinals and once drove with my mom to St. Louis to spend the weekend with my daughters and me to watch the Cardinals and Albert Pujols play; and Andrea’s dad, who for most of his life was not a sports fan, but who became an honorary Cardinals fan in later years simply because he knew what baseball and the Cardinals meant to me.

Each time Pujols stepped to the plate throughout the weekend, the scene repeated itself with standing ovations and enthusiastic cheers. When Pujols hit a home run on Saturday afternoon – a classic Pujols line drive that never rose above fifteen feet off the ground until it landed in the Angels dugout in left field seconds later – the entire stadium erupted as if the Cardinals had won the World Series. It was a remarkable moment for which, I confess, I became choked up again, as I thought of the many joyful moments I experienced, often by myself on summer evenings, watching the beauty and artistry of Pujols’s outstanding, dominating play. It was a needed reminder of how quickly time passes in our temporary journey through life.

In a sense, Pujols’ return to St. Louis was a chance to reconcile conflicting emotions, to cleanse my soul; to remember, to forgive, and to once again dream. For Pujols, one sensed that he too needed a collective embrace from the city and fan base that loved him like no other. After he rounded the bases and entered the Angels dugout to the congratulatory high fives of his teammates – a temporary dose of reality that the opposing team had just hit a home run against us – Pujols returned to the top of the dugout steps a moment later and donned his cap to the Cardinals faithful, and we erupted in wild cheers all over again. The Prodigal Son had indeed returned home, and all was forgiven.

For me, the weekend in St. Louis was also a needed respite from the noisy and divisive times in which we presently live. For three days, tens of thousands of people of all political persuasions came to one place with one purpose. With the help of Albert Pujols, we temporarily forgot about all that divides us and showed that we are united in our passions, our hopes, our dreams, and our aspirations. He reminded us all once again of why we love baseball, for it keeps us connected to our youth, when we were defined by our dreams and embraced the mythological heroes of our favorite teams. The game and its players let us forget, if only for a moment, that adulthood forces us to grow up, to put away childish dreams, to go out into the world and confront the harshness and realities of life. The players we root for everyday become extensions of ourselves and our family. 

Of course, we all must grow up and go our own way; our children leave us and make their own lives; our siblings leave home and pursue their dreams. Disappointments and sorrow inevitably follow, along with moments of joy and celebration. Over time, we lose the people we love, some to death, others to the precariousness of life. But we are always welcomed home to the embrace of family.

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. -- George Augustus Moore


  1. This entry really brought me to tears. I totally get it. Thank you for putting it so elegantly into words.

    1. Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to read it.