As Pujols joins exclusive 700 home-run club, baseball world inspired by Cardinals ‘legend’

St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols gestures to the dugout after hitting a double against Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman, not shown, in the fourth inning of interleague MLB baseball action in Toronto, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Jon Blacker/CP)

Editor’s Note: Albert Pujols hit his 700th home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 23.

TORONTO – Even now, the inning comes back to Cavan Biggio in vivid detail.

First, there were two quick outs. Next, a David Eckstein single and a Jim Edmonds walk. And then, with the Houston Astros one out away from their first ever World Series appearance, Albert Pujols stepped in against one of the game’s best closers on the night of Oct. 17, 2005. With Brad Lidge on the mound following a 42-save season, 10-year-old Biggio was justifiably hopeful for an Astros win.

But on the second pitch of the at-bat, Pujols hit a no-doubt home run to left field, Lidge fell to his knees and the Cardinals took the lead.

“The crowd had been so excited,” recalled Biggio, whose father, Craig, led off for the Astros that day. “All of a sudden he hit that ball and you could hear a pin drop.”

As Pujols rounded the bases, the current Toronto Blue Jays infielder sat in stunned silence.

“I didn’t like him at all,” Biggio continued. “It crushed my soul a little bit.”

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Seventeen years later, a new generation of players has arrived in the majors. Gone are Eckstein, Edmonds and Lidge. In their place, the likes of Ronald Acuña Jr., Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani now shine. But even as rosters around baseball have turned over, the 42-year-old Pujols has been a constant, hitting home run after home run on his way towards baseball history.

Now on the doorstep of 700 career home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals star is inspiring awe from all corners of the game. Pitchers who grew up cheering for him tell you they pitch him carefully to this day. Managers who debuted after him marvel at his longevity. And when hitters discuss Pujols, the level of respect is palpable.

“Albert for me is a legend,” Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “It’s motivation. He started playing before I was born, pretty much, so seeing him do it at 42 motivates me a lot to keep working hard.”

“An inspiration,” added Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco, who wears No. 5 as a tribute to Pujols. “He’s a legend in this game. He’s a Hall of Famer and he hasn’t even retired yet.”

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When Pujols debuted in 2001, Franco was a month old. Guerrero Jr. had just turned two. Later that summer, Pujols made his first all-star team alongside Vladimir Guerrero Sr., then of the Montreal Expos. Over the years, a bond formed between the fellow Dominicans.

“I see him as a father figure,” Guerrero Jr. said. “I’ve been watching him since I was little. He’s always given me good advice and not just that, he always gave my dad great advice too. When you have someone like that who cares about your family, the respect that I feel for Albert – it’s amazing.”

When told of Guerrero Jr.’s description, Franco started nodding in agreement.

“Same,” he said via interpreter. “He’s a father figure. He respects everyone. He gives a lot of advice for anyone who needs it.”

There’s no mistaking the way Guerrero Jr. and Biggio venerate Pujols, but both have Hall of Fame fathers of their own, which adds a level of familiarity and comfort. Along those lines, Franco first met Pujols through his uncles, former big-leaguers Erick and Willy Aybar, at his grandmother’s funeral.

These players respect Pujols, but they’re not scared to talk to him. For instance, the first time Biggio played against Pujols, he recounted the story of the 2005 NLCS. “Man, you made me a really sad kid,” Biggio recalled.

But players without that pre-existing relationship sometimes hesitate around Pujols, relying on their teammates to make connections. In April of 2021, Guerrero Jr. introduced Santiago Espinal, who couldn’t stop grinning. Meanwhile, Alejandro Kirk was too shy to say hello at all.

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“For some reason, I couldn’t approach him,” the Blue Jays catcher recalled through Lebron this spring. “But it was close.”

Kirk has since had the chance to meet Pujols, whose pre-game preparation he watched closely at the 2022 All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Of course, there are those who see Pujols more as a peer than a father figure, but some of them are in manager’s offices. Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash is now the second-longest tenured manager in the American League, trailing only Cleveland’s Terry Francona. But he debuted in the big-leagues in 2002, the year after Pujols, on his way to an eight-year playing career.

“Similar careers,” joked Cash, a lifetime .183 hitter with 12 career home runs.

After a moment of levity, Cash expressed admiration for Pujols, who ranks third all-time with 2,200 RBI and 10th all-time with 3,370 hits.

“I’m amazed,” he said. “All of baseball probably should be amazed. You look at his numbers and you don’t even believe it. Just the type of success he’s had. The home runs. The RBI. The doubles. World Series championships. It’s great for baseball he’s having this (run). I certainly hope he gets to 700.”

If there’s one subset of players that’ll be glad to see Pujols retire, it might be pitchers, but even there the three-time MVP has his supporters. Blue Jays reliever David Phelps grew up in St. Louis, so he cheered Pujols on as a fan for the first decade or so of his career. He remembers Pujols playing left field, third base and even a little shortstop while putting up MVP numbers at the plate.

But once Phelps reached the majors, his job was to compete against Pujols, and on that front he has succeeded more than most. The right-hander has limited the 11-time all-star to just two singles in 10 at-bats with one RBI and two strikeouts, the most recent of which came in May.

“The most amazing thing is he still is able to get the barrel to the ball,” Phelps said. “You look at the swing, it hasn’t changed. His ability to keep his bat in the zone for a long time is just incredible. It’s a testament to not only how great he was but still is.”

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For years, it’s seemed likely that Pujols would fade into retirement. But he has returned to form in 2022, hitting 18 home runs with an .864 OPS entering play Thursday. With three more runs, he’d become only the fourth player in MLB history to reach 700, joining Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth.

“I’ll tell you what, at some point I’d like to accomplish that myself,” said Guerrero Jr., who now has 100 career home runs of his own. “But it’s a lot of homers and a lot of years that you’ve got to stay in the game. We’ll see, but hopefully one day I can do that. It’s very hard.”

With a little less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, players are becoming increasingly attuned to what’s happening league-wide. As Phelps says, “it’s boxscore season.” And while the pennant races are sure to be the primary focus for contending teams, players everywhere will be keeping one eye on the Cardinals scores, too.

“He’s been through generations of baseball,” said Biggio. “It’d be cool to see him get there.”

Franco goes a step further. “I think he’s going to get 700, but I honestly think he’s going to get more.”

“It’s incredible,” said Phelps, “but one of the cooler things about it is he doesn’t actually need 700.”

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