Major League Baseball | St. Louis Cardinals

Randy Karraker: In St. Louis, the Player Means More. Welcome Back Albert.

Angels Cardinals Baseball
Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols tips his cap during a standing ovation before his first at bat during first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, June 23, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

For the second time in two weekends, the unique magnificence of the St. Louis sports fan was on display Friday, Saturday and Sunday as Albert Pujols returned to Busch Stadium, to thunderous standing ovations each time he stepped to the plate.

I was upset when Pujols left, but I’ve also allowed time to heal that hurt.  As he told USA Today, his departure worked out best for the Cardinals because they avoided his descending, injury included seasons…and for him, because he’s able to DH in the American League.  I don’t think that if Pujols came back in 2012 the reception would have been the same.  Pujols probably would have been booed. Tony LaRussa was gone, the Cardinals were one of the best teams in the league, and the cuts to Cardinals fans’ ego weren’t yet healed.

While eight seasons was too long for MLB to bring him back to the site of his greatest accomplishments, our desire to see Pujols play one more time was stronger because of the wait.  And from the opening 75 second ovation in his first at bat Friday to his curtain call in what is likely his final at bat here Sunday night, the weekend was full of memorable, highlight moments.  My guess is that there won’t be a Cardinal moment in 2019 as majestic and ingrained for perpetuity as Pujols’ home run on Saturday.  With a 4-0 Cardinal lead, he hit a quintessential Pujols homer to lead off the seventh inning, and the fans went nuts.  Just like when he was here and hit a big homer, Albert was drawn out of the dugout by the adulation and gave the BFIB their curtain call.

There’s a great Jerry Seinfeld bit about sports fans, and how we root for their clothes. What’s different about St. Louis is that we root for people, too.  Yes, we root for the laundry.  We’re Cardinals and Blues fans first and foremost.  But in a community that’s greatness is built on great people, we love our guys.  Albert isn’t the only one.  I remember when Willie McGee, perhaps the most popular Cardinal player of my generation, was traded to Oakland in 1990 and then moved to the Giants in 1991.  When he returned here in June of that year and the rest of his time away from the Cardinals, he received raucous ovations.

The same happened when Brett Hull left for Dallas after the 1998 hockey seasons.  When the Stars came here in 1999, Hull was treated like royalty.  Even in the playoffs, Blues fans applauded their all-time greatest goal scorer, because he was their guy.  Brendan Shanahan was a different case because he played for the hated Red Wings, but there are plenty of other examples of players that have left St. Louis and come back to love and adoration from their old hometown.

It’s happened in football.  When Kurt Warner returned to the Dome here in St. Louis with the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, he might as well have been the home team quarterback.  He passed for 285 yards and three touchdowns, and HE’S the one that got the standing ovations, not Rams starter Marc Bulger.  The same occurred when Isaac Bruce came back as a member of the 49ers in 2008.  He scored a fourth quarter touchdown in a game the Rams would lose, but was applauded by the people of St. Louis.

The Blues have seen plenty of fan favorites return…most recently David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk, and they got great receptions.  Do you think when Drew Bledsoe returned to New England that they cheered for him, or when Alex Rodriguez made his comeback to Seattle, or Antii Niemi to Chicago, that those fans applauded the guy?

We’ve seen it with David Freese every time he’s returned to St. Louis.  He’s gotten standing ovations.  Jim Edmonds came back as a CUB and was applauded.  Brian Elliott came back with the Flyers this year, T.J. Oshie with Washington and when Scott Rolen appeared here as a member of the Reds, they were all treated like personal favorites.

Seinfeld is right about MOST sports fans.  They do root for the clothes, and if a player leaves, he comes back as the same human being and is booed.  But St. Louis is different, and that’s what makes St. Louis great.

As the Blues found out in the days following their Stanley Cup Championship…especially at the parade…and all the current Cardinals and Angels learned this weekend, St. Louis loves PEOPLE.

In most cities and ballparks, a former player comes back as the enemy.  In St. Louis, Pujols came back as one of us forever.  Caring about people is what sets St. Louis apart, and what makes Cardinal fans the best in baseball.