Darren Richardson

April 26, 2012

At least his number is the same.

But other than wearing No. 5 on his uniform, the Albert Pujols now playing for the 2012 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim bears little resemblance to the Albert Pujols who starred for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2001 through 2011, helping the team to three World Series appearances (2004, 2006 and 2011) and two World Series championships (2006, 2011).

As Pujols’ struggles at the plate continue into late April (.222, 0 HRs, 4 RBIs, 6 BOBs and 11 Ks through 18 games and 72 at-bats heading into Thursday’s series finale at Tampa), fans of America’s Pastime are beginning to pay attention to Pujols for reasons other than those which earned the 32-year-old Dominican-born slugger three MVP awards (2005, 2008, 2009) as a Cardinal. The baseball press is buzzing with Pujols-related news every day now, but not for the reasons we’ve all come to expect. The glaring spotlight, unlike any he ever felt in St. Louis, will be on him from now until he snaps out of his slump or the season ends, whichever comes first.

And even the most schadenfreude-filled St. Louis fan has to expect that the former will occur before the latter.

Be that as it may, Pujols has already played in more than 10 percent of the games scheduled for the season, and he has yet to hit a ball out of the park, something he did 445 times in his 11 years with the Redbirds. On the bright side, Pujols has ripped seven doubles this year, meaning almost half of his 16 hits have been for extra bases. He’s definitely still capable of putting good wood on the ball, so what’s going on?

On ESPN’s Sports Center Wednesday night, lifetime .300 hitter John Kruk offered Pujols the best advice anyone could give him at this point: “Brain off.”

In other words, Pujols has been overthinking his at-bats. That much was obvious from the side-by-side comparison of Pujols at the plate this year versus a 2011 at-bat. Instead of the smooth-swinging, run-producing Machine we’ve grown accustomed to, No. 5 looked more like an off-kilter gyroscope in this year’s footage.

But just as a talented player can give too much thought to batting mechanics rather than letting his innate skills take over and do the job, it’s also possible to give too much thought to one’s environment. Anaheim may be a wonderful place to play baseball, but it’s not St. Louis.

Pujols not in same league as Musial, Brock, Gibson, other Cardinal greats

The St. Louis Cardinals are the most successful franchise in National League history, second only the American League’s storied New York Yankees in World Series Championships (27 to 11).

Until December 2011, Albert Pujols and the Gateway City had a special relationship. He was part of a long tradition of baseball greats that included names like Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith. True legends in their own right, all of them, yet Pujols was poised to ascend to even greater heights as a Cardinal. When he left St. Louis, he was only 30 home runs shy of Musial’s St. Louis mark of 475 round-trippers. It will be a long, long time before Stan the Man’s record is challenged, and Pujols could fail to reach 30 home runs for the first season in his career in 2012.

More than just the St. Louis statistics (.328, 445 HRs, 1,329 RBIs), there was something extraordinary about Pujols from the very beginning: taking N.L Rookie of the Year honors in 2001; being hailed as “The Great Pujols” in a literary homage to Ernest Hemingway’s references to “The Great DiMaggio” in The Old Man and the Sea by Buzz Bissenger in his excellent 2005 book Three Nights in August; playing a key role in the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series Championship that ended a 24-year championship drought, the longest in franchise history; joining Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to hit three home runs in a single World Series with his Game Four performance against the Rangers in 2011.

For Cardinal fans and Pujols himself, these achievements and others were as much about Cardinals’ lore and the Spirit of St. Louis as they were about individual glory, or at least Cardinal fans thought so until $246 million (or $254 million, depending on the report you read) changed Pujols’ loyalties.

According to some reports, Pujols was not exactly happy about the way St. Louis fans reacted when he made the move to L.A. But he should know that loyalty is a two-way street. By choosing the bigger contract and new digs over an opportunity to win more championships with the Cardinals on familiar turf that his own bat had helped christen, Pujols chose the “business” of baseball over the tradition. The choice was his, and he chose the Angels even though the Cardinals were still willing to pay him pretty darn well to stay in St. Louis.

Pujols may have lingering regrets about leaving St. Louis

Pujols will always be remembered as part of the Tony La Russa Era in St. Louis, a 16-year reign that began in 1996 when Joe Torre left the Cardinals for the Yankees and the fate of two managers – and the two most successful franchises in baseball history – changed forever. That era didn’t end until La Russa, relying heavily on Pujols, had managed to bring home the most improbable of titles after the “squirrelly” 2011 championship run. As seen on the post-game interviews following the Cardinals Game Seven win in St. Louis, a happy Pujols replied “Why not?” when asked if thought he might repeat with the Cardinals in 2012.

That was before La Russa stepped aside, before the contract offer Pujols apparently took as an insult, before Angels’ owner Art Moreno made No. 5 a contract offer he couldn’t refuse.

Meanwhile, things are going quite well for rookie skipper Mike Matheny and the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. It’s early, of course, but the Redbirds lead the N.L. Central by 2.5 games over the Cincinnati Reds, and Cardinal fans are still as loyal to the team as ever. Pujols will likely come around for the Angels, at least to some degree, and when he tastes success it will no doubt be sweet. But for now, something in his batter’s box body language thus far in 2012 seems to hint that he never quite understood that what he had been a part of in St. Louis was more than just a job, it was an adventure in the making of a legend. Now that legend is just another career brought low by offspeed pitching and, perhaps, the stress that comes from repeatedly second-guessing a life-changing decision.


Wikipedia entry for Albert Pujols

Wikipedia entry on Schadenfreude

Pujols still appears lost in a new place, Orange County Register, April 25, 2012

Offspeed pitches have Pujols offbase, ESPN , April 25, 2012

Pujols' projected statistics: From 2012 on, he's basically another Champ Summers, Punditty, Dec. 14, 2011

Three Nights in August: A Review, The Hardball Times, April 1, 2005

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