ST. LOUIS — Forgiveness is a powerful trait to obtain and an even harder one to hold onto. It collides with stubbornness and a stout belief that one can never be wrong in their decisions. Eventually, one gives way to the other.
Eight years later, on the dawn of his first series in Busch Stadium since exchanging one red jersey for another, Albert Pujols deserves your forgiveness, St. Louis Cardinals fans. If you haven't relented by now, it's time. Bitterness should be able to avoid a ten count as it nears the tenth year since the origin of the anger.
Tonight, Pujols will step to the plate at Spruce and Stan (as in Stan Musial) for the first time since October 2011. Gone is the spry 31-year-old slugger who smashed 37 home runs and posted a 5.3 WAR along with a .906 OPS in his final season in St. Louis. In that formerly invincible hitter's place stands a guy who struggles to hit .245, gather 35 home runs, and finish with a 3.0 WAR these days. A shell of his former dominant self, old #5 will walk to the plate in downtown St. Louis and ask for forgiveness.
Granted, he won't verbally ask for it, but you bet Yadier Molina is going to stand up and walk out in front of the plate as Pujols nears homeplate around 7:15 p.m., giving his best friend and former World Series-winning pal the time of day to soak in Cardinal Nation one last time. This weekend will more than likely be the final time St. Louis sees Albert in action. He'll be 40 in January, and if it took eight seasons to get him here, I wouldn't expect him to spin around so quick before his 10-year contract expires.
Do yourself a favor and applaud loud and clear. Forget the decision and remember the legacy. Pujols could retire tomorrow and enter the Hall of Fame on the first ballot he stood on. He'll wear a red coat into the Cardinal Hall of Fame as well. After all, part of Pujols' heart never left the Midwest. He still helps operates several charities here and owns a home in the area. You bet he will come back and live part of the year in St. Louis after his playing days are over, services contract or not in Los Angeles. It's what is right, and Pujols will make it right.
What I am trying to say is you will be in the presence of a living legend and arguably the greatest Cardinal to ever take swings with the birds on the bat adjoining his chest. One could make a solid argument for Musial, who admitted late in his life had free agency been around during his playing days that he would have considered signing elsewhere. You could make a case for Bob Gibson, whose 251 wins will never be matched by a Cardinal pitcher. Pujols' eleven seasons in St. Louis will stand the test of time.
Ask yourself this. How many guys play eleven years in a city and put up a 1.037 OPS and nearly 87 wins above replacement. Pujols won three MVP awards, played in nine All Stars Games, won six Silver Slugger awards, and won two Gold Gloves during his time in St. Louis. He helped the Cardinals win a pair of World Series titles, putting up a .965 OPS in 16 World Series games. Whoever thought of the word "stud" definitely had Pujols in mind.
While one can say Paul Goldschmidt could make someone stop and watch him take an at-bat, Pujols certainly did make you stop. You put down the dish, pulled over in traffic, or told the spouse to give you a second. The conference was paused, workout halted, and the conversation was essentially postponed. When Albert stepped to the plate, he was the only conversation. Let's face it. We may never see that kind of talent again.
So, give him all the standing ovations this weekend. He'll walk to the plate, more round and slower than usual. He'll chase pitches that St. Louis fans aren't used to seeing him go after. The bat speed has decreased, so expect more groundouts and weak fly outs. He'll get under a few and fall behind many. What used to be a hazard zone for pitchers to throw in will be somewhat safer. Still, make a mistake and Pujols will crush it.
He's pushing back against Father Time this season. After back-to-back seasons of accumulating a .700 OPS or lower, Pujols is up to .757 entering play tonight. He has 12 home runs, and his 24 walks in 60 games fall just four shy of what he put up last year in 117 games. 38 of his 57 starts have come at first base. The legs aren't what they used to be, but there's still some juice left in them.
He enters the game with 645 home runs, which gives him a healthy chance of at least reaching 700 before he hangs them up. He would be fourth on the list he can hit 55 more home runs. He hit 445 of those as a Cardinal. Isn't that worth an ovation or six?
Remember. Pujols merely made a choice back in 2011. The Cardinals were offering this, and the Angels offered that. Pujols chose the latter. You can't say what you would have done unless you were sitting in his shoes, so don't judge. Everyone has their reasons and needs, and Pujols simply made a choice. I was mad and saddened by his decision, because I wanted to see my own version of Musial. Several thousand felt the same way. I hope by now, we are all over it. Get there before tonight.
I don't like telling people how to be a fan, but this one time, I will insist. Give Pujols a standing ovation. Get off your seat, whether you are at Busch, at a bar, or in your home. Show him the respect he deserves. For 11 seasons, he made Busch Stadium and the Cardinals a better place. He was a god in this town. Believe it or not, his jerseys still hang around on game nights at Busch 2.0. The best thing about sports is the memories never die. They live on, like newspaper clippings wrapped around in a pole on a windy day.
Forgiveness isn't easy to pull off. Being stubborn is far easier. Then again, there is an instant gratification when you do reconsider a misfortune. A release on your nerves and a calmness in your heart.
It's been eight years since Pujols last stepped into the box at Busch. This weekend, he deserves all the standing ovations St. Louis can give him.
He's one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. Easily one of the top 5 right-handed hitters of all time. Doesn't that garner an ovation? I think so.
One last time, show Pujols who you are. Let's show the world it is possible to forgive on a grand scale.