The night was closing down. My eyelids were heavy and I couldn’t bear to read anymore. I turned the volume on the television up enough to hear, but not enough to bother my wife, asleep on the other side of the living room wall. I turned to my typical evening wind down. The Cardinals on the television for the last few innings. Bowman came in and things fell apart. They fell apart quicker than I anticipated, and I knew, for the fiftieth time this season, that the season was over.
I picked up my cat, moved him over and found the remote. I knew, earlier in the evening before I started reading, that Kyrie had been traded to the Celtics, so I flipped the channel to ESPN to catch the latest coverage. But, there was no basketball coverage, no talking head speaking about what this means for the playoffs next season, blah blah blah. There was west coast baseball. The Rangers were in Anaheim to take on the Angels. Trout was on deck, and on the edge of the dugout stood Albert Pujols
In St. Louis from 2001-2011 every Albert Pujols at-bat was must see television. Whether you were on your couch, puttering around the yard with Mike Shannon’s voice in the background, in a bar, or passing a television display at an electronics store, you stopped for the minute or two he might be at the plate. You knew that something amazing was about to occur. He could hit a screamer off the center field wall, a line drive over the left field fence, a moon shot into the bullpen, or scare the opposition so much that they would simply put up four fingers and send him down to first without even trying. Ohh you would get mad. “Wimp, wuss, scared little baby!” we would all yell at the screen. And everyone, to a person, from waitress, to cook, to a complete stranger, would all nod in agreement. “I thought this was a man’s game?”
Albert was our guy. Just think of that sentence and the word it began with. Albert. It’s not an overly unusual name. You’ve met at least an Albert or two throughout your life. It’s not Madonna, or Elvis, or Cher. But, within Cardinal nation, even six seasons after his departure, when you hear the word Albert you picture one face. He was our guy, and in many ways, he still is. The memories are omnipresent. That smile, that swing, the fearless running of the bases, the three home run game in the fall classic. You can close your eyes and play them back like a personal childhood memory.
Albert was Cardinals baseball. And last night, I saw his ghost. He has the same smile. You’d know him when you see him. But, like an old friend from college you haven’t seen in a few years, he looks a little different. He walks with a noticeable limp, the cameras thankfully cut away when he’s running, his belly hangs just a little over his belt, and his jaw line is now cut from his beard. I felt it as he walked up for his first at-bat. I was so exhausted. The day had taken everything out of me. But Albert was about to hit. I got that same feeling. I cannot turn away, leave my spot on the couch, drab a drink of water, anything. I have to sit here. I cannot move an inch. I have to watch.
The stance is familiar, and in the box, he is still Albert. The look in his eyes, the hitch in his front foot, the way he moves his hands. Nervous excitement. I wanted to see Albert, our Albert. Not what he has become as his legs and heels have betrayed him. And, like so many times in the eleven seasons, he was ours, he did not disappoint. The pitch, Albert swings! A rocket to right center! It was hit with such force that it didn’t have time enough to rise above the fence. A run scored and Albert had a standup rbi double. I’m too old to be that excited about a first inning double, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I was.
So, as this summer ends, and the fall closes in you can still get that feeling. The feeling that only the truly great ones give baseball fans. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6-year-old on the living carpet in South City a foot from the TV, a jaded 20 something staring at a full pint and a seemingly endless life ahead, or an octogenarian on the back nine of life, you know that feeling. And last night, for the whisper of a moment, the ghost of Albert Pujols made me feel like a kid again.