Albert Pujols worthy of his own retirement tour
Last week, Albert Pujols belted his first home run in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform since the 2011 World Series.
Busch Stadium erupted, celebrating the return of their three-time MVP, who last month signed a one-year $2.5 million deal to come back to St. Louis for one last go-round.
"This is it for me," Pujols told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold in March. "This is my last run."
He joins longtime Cardinals Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, both members of the club's 2006 World Series team. Molina has also declared 2022 to be his final year. Wainwright could be retiring after 2022, but has yet to make an official decision. All three St. Louis icons could be riding off into the sunset together.
Pujols' first homer of the 2022 season was also the 680th of his career. The 42 year-old slugger ripped 17 homers over 109 games with the Angels and Dodgers in 2021, and currently has an outside chance at joining the 700 home run club before hanging up his cleats. With the National League adopting the designated hitter, Pujols should get even more plate appearances in 2022, as long as he stays healthy. At the very least, he should be a fixture in the Cardinals' lineup against left-handed pitchers, who he still mashes against. Last season Pujols hit .294 against southpaws.
So Albert Pujols is back in Cardinal red for the first time in ten years, on a team that looks to compete for a division title, and he's 20 home runs away from 700? What am I missing here? Why isn't Pujols' final year a bigger story? Why isn't Major League Baseball rolling out the red carpet for Pujols the way it did Derek Jeter in 2014?
Eight years ago, Jeter received parting gifts at every stop of his retirement tour. The Astros and Rangers each presented him custom-made cowboy boots. The Angels gifted him a paddleboard, the Indians gifted him a pinstriped guitar and the Cubs gave him a number 2 from the Wrigley centerfield scoreboard. Gatorade, Nike and Major League Baseball all aired emotional tributes commemorating the shortstop's 20-year career.
The celebration of Jeter's Hall of Fame career was an emotional turning of the page from one era to the next, and entirely necessary. For 20 years, Jeter carried himself with humility and grace as a face of Major League Baseball. He was the captain of the Yankees during an era in which the club won five World Series rings. He was a World Series MVP, 14-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover and five-time Silver Slugger who batted .310 over the course of his career.
And yet, Albert Pujols was an even greater player than Jeter, and is receiving just a small percentage of Jeter's fanfare.
From 2001 through 2011, Pujols finished top 5 in NL MVP voting 10 times. Seven times, he placed in the top two. In 2002 and 2003, he finished second to Barry Bonds, a confirmed PED-user. Pujols very well could have been cheated out of two additional MVP awards. Conversely, Jeter finished top 3 in AL MVP voting just three times, never winning the award.
During his first stint with the Cardinals (2001-2011), Pujols averaged a slash line of .328 BA/.421 OBP/1.037 OPS, along with 40 home runs and 121 RBI per year, over 11 years. During his 12-year peak (1998-2008), Jeter slashed .320 BA/.392 OBP/.858 OPS, averaging 17 home runs and 76 RBI per year.
Comparing Pujols and Jeter using WAR (Wins Above Replacement), from each player's 12-year peak isn't a fair fight. Pujols (2001-2012) was a 91.5 WAR player; Jeter, 59.6 WAR. Jeter posted a negative dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) at -5.6. Pujols logged a 3.2 dWAR.
Like Jeter, Pujols has been an MVP off the diamond, too. His Pujols Family Foundation has improved the lives of people living with Down syndrome and those living in poverty in the Dominican Republic. Pujols is one of the most charitable athletes in sports history.
So why hasn't Pujols been getting the same kind of emotional sendoff Jeter got in 2014?
Perhaps it's because Pujols' career faded in Los Angeles, while Jeter's offensive production remained incredibly steady his entire career. Jeter had just two full seasons in which he batted below .290. After collecting 10 years and $254 million from the Angels in 2012, Pujols was a shell of himself on the west coast. In his 11 years with the Cardinals, there wasn't a season in which Pujols didn't finish top 10 in NL MVP voting. In 10 years in Anaheim and Los Angeles, Pujols made just one All-Star appearance (2015).
Jeter played his entire career with the same team and became synonymous with the New York Yankees, the sport's biggest team in the country's biggest city. In Jeter's 20 years, the Bronx Bombers missed the postseason just three times. Like the main character in a long-running sitcom, baseball fans became accustomed to seeing Jeter (and his cheesy one-liners) on the sport's biggest stage every October. After leaving St. Louis, Pujols made just two trips to the postseason (2014 with the Angels, 2021 with the Dodgers) and became nothing more than a recurring guest star.
As Pujols regressed as a player, he faded into the background on an underwhelming Angels team on the west coast. Even as a member of the Dodgers, winners of 106 last year, Pujols was a side character at best. He pinch-hit and platooned at first base, mostly getting starts against lefties.
In 2019, the league honored CC Sabathia at the All-Star game, making him an honorary member of the American League All-Star team. In 2013, Mariano Rivera received parting gifts at every stop of his farewell tour. Perhaps Pujols should have joined the Yankees (or played his whole career in St. Louis) in order for him to receive the proper curtain call at center stage that he deserves.
Though he never lived up to the contract he signed with the Angels, Pujols will go down as one of the greats. Never linked to PED usage, Pujols played it entirely clean, putting up monster numbers at a time when many of his competitors were in fact linked to PED use. He is arguably the best international-born player ever, and with his riches, he's given back to communities in need of help.
So I beg of you, Major League Baseball: do what's right, and properly celebrate the career of one of the sport's greatest hitters and humans. Pump up the Albert Pujols farewell tour, send him off with gifts, special events and tributes. Make The Machine's last stand one of the headlines of the 2022 season. Let's thank Albert Pujols for all he's done for the game of baseball and show him the greatest retirement party baseball has ever seen.
(Image via AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)