Bernie: As Albert Pujols Returns, Let’s Appreciate What He Meant to the Cardinals. And Mourn What’s Been Lost.

I was privileged to have a prime seat for witnessing the best of Albert Pujols. He gave St. Louis and the Cardinals 11 seasons of excellence and intensity, fearlessness and ferociousness, pride and purpose, MVP awards and pennants, All-Star games and World Series titles.

Pujols assaulted pitches, intimidated opponents, and saved runs with his defense. To make up for slow legs, he had a fast brain that gave him keen base-running instincts.

From 2001 through 2011, Pujols was the league Rookie of the Year, won three National League MVP awards finished second in the voting four times, and placed among the top five on three other occasions.

As a Cardinal Pujols was a nine-time All-Star who batted .328, slugged .617, had a 1.037 OPS, and averaged 40 homers, 117 runs and 121 RBIs per season. Over the 11 seasons Pujols supplied offense at a level that came in at 70 percent above league average.

Pujols led the Cardinals into the postseason seven times — with the team winning three NL pennants and two World Series. His extraordinary postseason numbers for the Cards included a .330 average, .607 slug, 1.046 OPS, 18 homers and 52 RBIs in 74 games.

In St. Louis franchise history Pujols ranks second in homers, doubles, RBIs, OPS, slugging percentage and walks. He’s third in runs scored and Wins Above Replacement. He’s fourth all-time among Cardinals in hits, onbase percentage and park-adjusted runs created.

My memories of Pujols match most of your memories. But more than the individual moments of grandeur, my respect and appreciation remains centered on the man’s relentless pursuit of greatness for his team and himself.

During my nearly 35 years of chronicling St. Louis sports Pujols stands alone with his combination of supreme talent, dedication, and daily ruthlessness as a competitor. For those 11 seasons he was the best player in baseball … and the hungriest.

“He was the greatest that I’ve ever seen. Really, he was the perfect player,”said Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, Pujols’ manager in St. Louis, to USA Today.

Yes.

This is a special and sentimental weekend, with Pujols coming home to St. Louis, and to Busch Stadium, to play for the first time since Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. He’s in the eighth season of his 10-year free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

At 39, Pujols has still has the power to make pitchers pause and be careful. What you won’t read here, in this piece, is a breakdown of Pujols’ breakdown as an elite hitter.

Big newsflash: players age. They don’t put up the same numbers that they posted 10 years earlier. Is this supposed to be a revelation?

What you won’t read here is a waste-of-time attempt to relitigate the circumstances of Pujols’ free-agent departure in December 2011.

What you won’t read here is an unnecessary regurgitation of how the Cardinals actually benefited by Pujols’ decision to leave his home base and sign with Anaheim. This has been written about, and talked about, at least 100,000 times.

We will, however, relay what Pujols had to say about this in his interview with USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale:

“I think it worked out perfect for me, and the Cardinals, too,” Pujols told USA Today. “With all of the injuries and everything that happened to me, it was the best-case scenario for me playing in the American League with a DH. It hasn’t been the best years of my career, but I’m still producing.”

This is about appreciating the treasure we had in Pujols. This is about cherishing the memories, celebrating his massive contributions to one of the most accomplished eras of Cardinal baseball. This is about welcoming Pujols home, and embracing his legacy here in the first formal step on the path that will lead him to a red jacket and the annual opening day that features the ceremonial convergence of Hall of Fame Cardinals.

“I don’t get too emotional, but for myself it will be like that,” Pujols said Wednesday in speaking with reporters who cover the Angels for the Los Angeles Times. said. “When I got to St. Louis, I was 21 and when I left I was 32. I got there as a baby and left as a man.

“I’m going to enjoy every moment because it’s a moment that won’t happen again unless we face them in the World Series.”

I don’t know if anyone out there in Cardinal Nation is still angry at Pujols … or stubbornly opposed to recognizing his amazing impact on the St. Louis summers, the St. Louis baseball franchise … or determined to withhold their applause and seal off their admiration when Albert walks into the batter’s box at Busch Stadium this weekend.

But if you’re going to be upset by anything related to the Cardinals-Pujols disconnection and reconnection, it should be this: Pujols personified the Cardinals’ attributes for so many years, it’s a damn shame to see the high standards lapse and collapse.

It’s sad to see the current version of the Cardinals muddle along at around .500 in the continuation of a downturn that could result in missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. It’s sad to hear manager Mike Shildt, and his players, rationalize mediocre results and all but demand applause for winning some games against other marginal teams. It’s sad when you hear Shildt and the players talk about how how hard they work … and how they have spirit. And how they make the effort to win.

(Response to that: Yeah. This is also known as “Your Minimum Job Requirement.”)

Good grief, y’all work for a major business enterprise and competitive entity that’s paying players combined salaries of $162 million this year. You don’t get to have a parade just because you show up to work and put in an effort. The only thing that counts is your number of wins, and whether it will be good enough to put this team back into the playoffs.

When I see Pujols return to Busch, and reappear before the best fans in the game, and watch and listen as he receives an extended and heartfelt ovation — all of this will make for a beautiful scene.

This will also leave me feeling mad, at least later on. Why? Because of what’s been lost. Because of the baseball team that represents St. Louis now — compared to the baseball team that represented St. Louis during the Pujols Era.

We can’t expect any player to replicate Pujols’ career-peak talent and performance. He’s one of the most accomplished players in MLB history. No one is asking a current Cardinal to equal — or even come close — to Pujols’ statistical profile from 2001-20111.

What we would like to see is the current Cardinals care as much as Pujols did, play as hard as Pujols played, and be as fierce as Pujols was, and burn with the same hunger that fueled him.

That’s been lost.

And that’s pitiful.

Former Cardinals’ left fielder Matt Holliday was a guest on “The Bernie Show” Friday. And though Holliday was in no way calling out the current Cardinals — it would be inaccurate and dishonest for me to pretend that he did — his words really resonated with me.

“When I got traded (to St. Louis) in 2009,” Holliday said, “one of the first things that I noticed that really just jumped off the page at me, and was something really appealing to me, that I wanted to be a part of moving forward was the competitive spirit that I felt not only from Albert but with Tony (La Russa) and Chris Carpenter and a lot of the veteran guys.

“The intensity and the will to win was just at a whole another level than anything I had been part of … it was just overwhelming, this preparation and intensity and watching star players like Albert and Chris Carpenter and a Hall of Fame manager (La Russa), and a Hall of Fame pitching coach (Dave Duncan.)

“Just their due diligence and what went into trying to win a game every night. The effort, and the intensity and the sacrifice. Watching Albert in the cage, and his preparation and just how serious he took every single thing he did.

“As a teammate you just go, ‘Wow, this is a whole different level of player and baseball organization. Just the intensity in the dugout, and the accountability that Carp, Albert and Yadi (Molina) and other veteran players held other guys to was just something that really caught my eye and got me excited.”

I hope that every fan at Busch Stadium rises up in a show of love and respect for Pujols this weekend.

And I hope that Pujols’ homecoming somehow motivates the Cardinals — from ownership on down –to raise their standards. And I hope that Albert’s presence will inspire the Cardinals to summon that insatiable hunger to win — the quality that best defined Pujols’ teams in St. Louis.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie