It was one month ago today when Cardinals fans packEd Busch Stadium for the final regular season game of 2011. As the crowd of 41,469 passed through the turnstile, many knew in the back of their minds it could very well be the last home game Albert Pujols ever played in a Cardinals’ uniform. St. Louis was still 2 games back of the Atlanta Braves for the final playoff spot in the National League with just 4 games to play. Though everyone hoped that the Cardinals would make the postseason tournament, or better yet – that Pujols would resign, no one was willing to take any chances.
So on September 25th in a game versus the Chicago Cubs, Pujols received ovation after standing ovation from the sellout crowd. Win or lose, stay or go, fans let Albert know how much his play was appreciated over the last 11 seasons. Up to that point, Pujols had led the Cardinals to 2 World Series appearances and one championship, collecting three MVPs, a Rookie of the Year Award, and amassed dozens of other accolades along the way. Thanks to an 8th inning go-ahead home run by shortstop Rafael Furcal, the Cardinals won that game and eventually clinched a playoff spot on the final game of the season.
So on October 4th and 5th, Cardinals fans got to see Albert a couple more times wearing the home red and white uniform. With the Cardinals trailing 2-1 the best of 5 series versus the National League’s best regular season team, fans again braced themselves for the worst in Game 4. For the second time in a week, it could’ve been Pujols’ final game in a Cardinal uniform. But thanks to a big 2-run home run by 3rd baseman David Freese… and a lights out 3-hit shutout of the Philadelphia Phillies by Chris Carpenter in Game 5, the Cardinals again advanced.
So on October 14th, fans once again packed Busch Stadium for what could have been Albert’s final home game as a Cardinal. The Cardinals cruised to a 7-1 victory, clinched the National League Pennant two days later in Milwaukee, and once again set the stage for Albert to return home.
So on October 20th, the Cardinals hosted the Texas Rangers for Game 2 of the World Series. Win or lose, it once again could’ve been Pujols’ last home game as a Cardinal. In the bottom of the 8th inning, it what could’ve been his final at bat at Busch Stadium in a Cardinal uniform… Pujols launched a ball back… to the track… to the wall… caught. The next inning, Albert made a critical fielding error that led directly to the game-winning run for the Rangers. Could that really be the final memory Cardinals fans would get of perhaps the greatest baseball icon in franchise history?
Of course not.
Wednesday, the World Series (and Pujols) returns to Busch Stadium for Game 6. For the 5th time in a month, it could very well be Pujols’ final home game in a Cardinal uniform. Thursday’s Game 7 (if necessary) could be the 6th. Like great theatre, the Cardinals season – and Pujols’ tenure in St. Louis – simply does not want to end until every last moment of heart-racing drama has taken place. In this drama’s previous 4 acts… our protagonist has come up short. Pujols has gone 1 for 16 with no HRs and 1 RBI in the other four games that could’ve been his last. There’s no telling what we can expect tomorrow in Game 6… or what possibly might lie ahead in Game 7… but I do want to remind you of a couple things: This is the same man who, with the team one out from elimination in the 2005 NLCS… hit a 3-run home run off the best closer in baseball to give the Cardinals a 1-run victory. The same man who just had a “down” year… hitting .299 with 38 home runs. The man who drove in the game tying run in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS… and the man who scored the winning run that same inning. This is the man who hit walk-off home runs on consecutive days earlier this year to keep the Cardinals’ season afloat. This is the man who just 3 days ago become the 3rd man in baseball history to hit 3 home runs in a World Series game, the 3rd man in history to drive in 6 runs in a World Series game, and the 2nd man to have 5 hits in a World Series game… and reached all three of those benchmarks with 1 swing of the bat in the 9th inning.
This is the man who we’ll all be telling our grandkids about someday, and his final script in St. Louis has not yet been written. Sit back enjoy the final days of an unforgettable baseball season.