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BenFred: A Cardinals-Pujols reunion would have been compelling drama, but the lack of a fit preserved his unblemished on-field legacy in St. Louis
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BenFred: A Cardinals-Pujols reunion would have been compelling drama, but the lack of a fit preserved his unblemished on-field legacy in St. Louis

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Cardinals host Angels

Albert Pujols acknowledges the Busch Stadium crowd with a curtain call on June 22, 2019, after hitting a homer against the Cardinals. (Post-Dispatch photo by Christian Gooden)

If ever there was a sentence that seems impossible to exist in the Post-Dispatch sports section, it’s this one: Albert Pujols cleared waivers.

He was designated for assignment last Thursday after a disagreement with the Angels about the downsizing of his role. Then he was released. He passed through waivers unclaimed, meaning every other team predictably passed on the opportunity to secure his services first by paying what was left of the $30 million the Angels remain on the hook to pay. Pujols became a free agent up for grabs for a prorated share of the major-league minimum until the defending champion Dodgers picked him up Saturday.

Honestly, it’s better this way.

Many here hoped and wished and downright demanded that the Cardinals clear a spot on the bench so Pujols, 41, could finish his career with the club his power and presence served as a cornerstone for 11 stellar seasons. The team discussed it internally but downplayed the probability from the start. Team president Bill DeWitt III sounded pessimistic about the idea in a recent interview on 101 ESPN. It might have been a different story if this happened a few months later, if the National League was still playing with the designated hitter, if the Cardinals were looking for some sort of a spark instead of leading their division by three games when Saturday morning’s alarm sounded.

We will find out soon enough if Pujols can make the Angels pay for paying him to play for another team in the same state. We will find out what made Pujols so interested in a role with the Dodgers that is probably going to look a lot like the one he refused to accept with the Angels. Pujols can burn the Angels with his shift. The Cardinals? Nope. Not unless Pujols hits the series-deciding homer against them to decide which NL teams goes to the World Series this season.

Whatever happens or doesn’t happen next for Pujols, it will be nothing more than a fun, colorful finish to the end of his career — or something that gets forgotten almost entirely. Nothing that happens now can chip, dent, scuff or otherwise harm his legacy as one of the all-time greats. If Pujols wants to keep working, and he can find a team that offers him work that he wants, great. But Pujols’ body of work? It needs no perfectly rounded number to top it off, no warm and fuzzy sendoff to shine it up. Whatever Pujols wants, his legacy does not need. His legacy does not lack.

He is a 10-time All-Star, a six-time Silver Slugger, a three-time MVP winner, a two-time World Series champion, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, one of the best first baseman of all time and, as New York Times baseball columnist Tyler Kepner pointed out recently, the only player in the history of the major leagues with 3,000 hits, 600 home runs and multiple World Series rings.

And here in St. Louis, he is even greater than that. Because while the Angels got some of the most impressive counting statistics and paid for it dearly on a contract that only succeeded in luring Pujols away from the Cardinals and little else, the Cardinals got the best of Pujols, period. Here, he should always be remembered as the player who turned lightning in a bottle into a decade-plus of dominance in a time capsule. The 13th-round draft pick out of Maple Woods Community College never let St. Louis down on the field. In free agency? Yes. But never on the field.

Not when Bobby Bonilla’s bad hamstring secured Pujols’ place on the 2001 roster. He became an All-Star and the rookie of the year award winner.

Not when Pujols averaged .328 with a .420 on-base percentage and a .617 slugging percentage during a marathon 11-season showcase that combined individual accolades with the ultimate team prize, twice.

Not when Pujols returned to Busch Stadium as an Angel in 2019 for his first trip back here as a player following a free-agent departure from the Cardinals that left hurt feelings on both sides. He rewarded marathon standing ovations with a single in his first game, a home run in his second, and two hits in his third. For a sport defined by failure, St. Louis never really saw Pujols fail. There is magic in that. A Cardinals-Pujols reunion would have threatened it. Could have spoiled it.

Pujols hasn’t been the player who carried the Cardinals since he left. Injuries and age have corroded his body and depleted his performance. He isn’t the hitter we saw in 2019, either, when he ran on adrenaline for three amazing days in June. Expect that same kind of surge if he’s still with the Dodgers when they come to Busch in early September. But expecting it over the course of the remainder of the season would have been asking a lot. I’m afraid expectations would not have been met.

We don’t talk much about Ken Griffey Jr. averaging .184 without a single home run when the 40-year-old pulled the plug on his career 33 games into his final reunion season with the Mariners. When describing Willie Mays, no one starts with the fact his last season with the Mets in 1973 was the first season the 42-year-old landed on the injured list. When remembering Bob Gibson, it’s rarely mentioned that his final win came out of the bullpen in 1975 because manager Red Schoendienst sent the 39-year-old and his bloated ERA there. But if Pujols returned to the Cardinals and failed, it would be hard to forget. Instead he gets a chance to end either with an exclamation point, or a barely-there memory.

It’s better this way.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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