Saturday, January 28 2023

PHOENIX — We sat down for 20 minutes Saturday afternoon, and Albert Pujols insisted he wouldn’t change his mind about retiring after this season, no matter how close he was to the glorious 700-home run club.

Well, the St. Louis Cardinals icon promptly went out, hit two home runs into the Phoenix night at Chase Field – just missing a third – and suddenly may be making the question moot.

It’s no longer whether Pujols can possibly reach 700 home runs, but just how soon he will do it?

Pujols, with five home runs in his last five games following his two-homer night, has 692 career home runs. He didn’t have a single homer in May or June, but now has six home runs since Aug. 10, more than seven entire teams.

Pujols, with 13 homers on the season, is now five home runs shy of eclipsing Alex Rodriguez for fourth place on the all-time home run list, eight away from 700, and, 22 shy of Babe Ruth.

Yes, the man is on fire, going 4-for-4 Saturday. He’s hitting .438 with a ridiculous .918 slugging percentage in the second half. The all-time slugging percentage in a second half is .908 by Barry Bonds when he hit a record 73 homers in 2001.

“I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t get caught up in numbers. If you were going to tell me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have told you that you’re freakin’ crazy. My career has been amazing.’’

So nothing will change your mind?

“If I can’t hit 70 homers, I’m not coming back,’’ Pujols said, laughing. “No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement this was it when I signed. Really I wouldn’t change a thing.’’

Aug. 20: St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks.Aug. 20: St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Aug. 20: St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Pujols, 42, who didn’t even have a job when spring training started, came close to going elsewhere. He had three other job offers, and at least one that was going to pay him significantly more than the $2 million the Cardinals eventually offered, with others promising more playing time.

But once the Cardinals called, it was over.

He packed his bags and was in the Cardinals’ camp by the next morning, preparing for his farewell tour.

“I took obviously a lot less money and less promises,’’ Pujols said, “but this is where I want to be. This is where I wanted to finish my last year, and thank God he allowed me to have this door open to come here to finish my career.”

Well, while everyone else might have thought it was simply going to be a ceremonial joy ride into the night, Pujols had other ideas.

“It’s been awesome having the opportunity to come back to St. Louis where everything started for me 21 years ago,’’ he said. “This organization believed I can help. It wasn’t just comeback to celebrate my last year, it was knowing I can help. That means a lot to me.

“It’s pretty special to help this organization win every way I can, and enjoying my last path through this city.’’

It was the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pujols said, that helped re-energize him. He was released by the Los Angeles Angels last May in the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract. The Dodgers, even with no DH in the National League last year, decided to give him a chance. Pujols became a pinch-hitter deluxe, hitting .254 with 12 homers in 189 at-bats, helping lead the Dodgers to the postseason

“I had so much respect for that organization, so much respect for the players, and was so blessed to have the opportunity to be back in the playoffs,’’ Pujols said. “It kind of really excited me to come back and play this year because they gave me the joy, gave me that thrill of being back in the postseason.’’

Now, it’s just like 2011 all over again. Pujols has the Cardinals sitting atop the National League Central, feeling like he’s a kid again.

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He clapped his hands in excitement when he nearly hit a third home run off Diamondbacks veteran Madison Bumgarner in the sixth inning with a shot off the left-field fence for a long single. He even tried to steal second base for the second time this year, and was barely thrown out. He produced another single in the seventh inning.

He was a one-man show.

“I feel really good to tell you the truth,’’ Pujols said. “I really didn’t know what I could do, but I know I put in a lot of hard work with the gift the Lord has given me. I didn’t know what the year would look like, but what I could control was dedication and hard work.

“Because of that hard work, I’m able to get better, stay healthy, and accomplish a lot of things in this game that a lot of players have never done.’’

Pujols, who will go down as one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, can’t even keep track of all his accomplishments. Chris Conroy, the Cardinals’ assistant trainer, constantly brings in baseballs for Pujols to sign and authenticate, with Pujols asking what just happened.

On this night, it was passing Stan Musial, the Cardinals’ all-time great, in total bases (6,141) for second place behind only Hank Aaron (6,856). He also became the first player in history to hit two home runs and produce four hits at the age of 42 or older.

“It’s just crazy, every day that I go to a game,’’ Pujols says, “they’re asking for a baseball. I say, ‘OK, what is this for?’ They say, ‘oh, you just tied or passed so-and-so.’ I’ll say, ‘What, I didn’t know that.’ I swear, I’m not B.S.’s you, I have no idea.’’

Yet, he can’t help but know his number of career homers. Everyone talks about it. Cardinals MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado say it’s the worst-kept secret in the clubhouse.

“We talk about it all of the time,’’ Arenado says. “I mean, 700 home runs? That’s something hardly anyone has seen. It’d be pretty special.’’

While everyone is transfixed on 700, Pujols will tell you he’s more proud of a number no one ever talks about these days: He has 2,187 career RBI. The only men in history with more are Aaron (2,297) and Babe Ruth (2,214).

“That’s the number that means everything to me,’’ Pujols said. “That’s how you win games. It takes four walks to get an RBI. It takes one homer to get at least one, or a base hit.

“That’s how you win, scoring runs. If somebody comes up to me and says that RBIs are overrated, I’ll tell them they are freaking crazy.’’

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The dream, of course, is for Pujols to leave the game with the ultimate prize, another World Series championship. He already has two rings, with plenty of room for another. Yet, no matter what transpires the final six weeks, no matter if he hits 700 homers or not, no matter how far the Cardinals advance into October, he’s leaving the game with an impeccable reputation and a plaque reserved for him in Cooperstown.

He played the game clean, played it right, and respected the game every moment he has stepped onto the field.

It hurts him when he sees players like Fernando Tatis Jr. busted for performance-enhancing drugs knowing that their careers are stained forever, hoping that they can be forgiven, but knowing they’ll never again be looked at the same.

“I don’t judge people, but it saddens me to see that being from the same country, the Dominican Republic, and the mistake the guy made,’’ Pujols said. “It doesn’t make you a bad person, but you made a bad choice. All it takes is a bad choice and it just stinks to see that not just for them, but for baseball and the people in our country.

“I’m on the radar just like everybody else, but there’s a huge responsibility you have to carry with you,’’ Pujols added. “That responsibility I have with God has helped me have the success I’d had. I know there’s a lot of people, a country that has followed me throughout my career, and I want to make them proud.’’

Mission accomplished: 700 homers or not.

“No matter what happens, buddy,’’ Pujols says, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had an unbelievable career. How blessed am I?’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Albert Pujols closing in on 700 home runs, insists he’s still retiring

Source: Yahoo Sports

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