Major League Baseball | St. Louis Cardinals

Pujols Achieves Greatness, but Does It Wearing the Wrong Red Cap

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Perhaps like you, I wonder if Albert Pujols has ever second guessed his decision to leave the Cardinals for the riches of Anaheim when he left for SoCal after the 2011 season.  Without question, the move worked out for the Cardinals, who got Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty as draft pick compensation.  And not spending that $210 million on Albert allowed the Cardinals to keep their nucleus together longer.

Matt Holliday played through the entire guaranteed portion of his contract, and Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright both signed extensions to stay in St. Louis.  At least one of those two wouldn’t have fit within the Cardinals’ budget if Pujols were on the roster.  So, the Cardinals are fine.

Can you imagine St. Louis, though, if Pujols approached 600 home runs in a Cardinal uniform?  Tickets would have been at a premium, FS Midwest TV ratings would be through the roof, and the town would have been buzzing like it did in 1998 when Mark McGwire hit 70 homers, or 1999 when he hit his 500th.

In Anaheim, where the capacity of Angels Stadium is 45,050, the biggest crowd of the season was on May 12 against Detroit, when 44,311 watched a 7-0 Angel win on cooler backpack night.  Exactly 400 fewer were on hand for the Angels home opener against Seattle.  This isn’t an affront to Anaheim, which does a terrific job of supporting the team.  This is more about how unique St. Louis is, and how different Pujols’ pursuit of milestones would have been here.

On Tuesday, when Albert hit number 599, 32,000 were on hand.  In the ensuing games, with Albert on the brink of becoming the ninth player to hit 600 homers, crowds in Anaheim were 36,000, 33,000, 39,000 and 40,236…4,814 short of capacity…for the game he hit the milestone 600thblast.

In 29 home games this season, the Cardinals have drawn less than 40,000 fans five times.  The Angels have had thirty home games, and drawn less than 40,000 in 22 of them.

When commissioner Peter Ueberroth came to St. Louis in the mid-eighties and said the Cardinals attendance of more than 3 million was a miracle of sports, and when Peter Gammons anointed St. Louis as the best baseball town in America around the same time, they said what they did for a reason.  The passion and interest displayed by Cardinal fans is unmatched.

That’s why I wonder if Albert ever second guesses the decision.  When he caught and passed Stan Musial with homers 475 and 476, it didn’t cause a ripple in Southern California.  And it shouldn’t.  It didn’t make any difference to fans there.  If he would have passed Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson or Tim Salmon, it might have been different.

If Pujols would have approached 500 as a Cardinal early in the 2014 season, the buzz throughout the off-season and leading up to number 500 would have been amazing.  And of course, if he would have approached 600 here, it would have meant the world to Cardinal fans to have a guy that started his career wearing the Birds on the Bat did that.  He would have been in such rare territory.  Only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays have hit 600 homers with one team.  It’s going to be hard for anyone to ever do that again.

Alas, that didn’t happen.  It was so cool to watch Derek Jeter get his first hit, his 3000th hit (a homer) and his last hit (a walkoff winner) as a member of the Yankees.  Tony Gwynn, Mike Schmidt and Mickey Mantle spent Hall of Fame careers with one team, but they’re some of the few.  Barry Bonds, Ruth, Aaron and Mays all played for multiple teams.  Pujols is the rule rather than the exception.

While it has worked out for the Cardinals, it’s a shame that Albert couldn’t have been the exception.  The mutual love between he and the fans would have been incredible.  In Southern California, he’s no different than Reggie Jackson, Darryl Strawberry or the Rams.  He’s a business that made his way there for the money.  Here in St. Louis, he could have been a beloved icon.  There wouldn’t be a question about which cap would be selected for him when he went into the Hall of Fame.  He would have been a Cardinal forever.

As it is, he’s a great player, and it’s wonderful that he’s become the ninth player in history to reach that plateau.  It’s great that he did it wearing a red cap.  It’s just the wrong red cap.