JUPITER, Fla. — With a wave of his hand and a tip of the cap, Albert Pujols walked back into the world of the St. Louis Cardinals for one final season.
“This is it for me,” the 42-year-old Pujols said Monday. “This is my last run.”
It was quite a scene as Pujols rejoined the Redbirds.
Wearing a big smile and his familiar red No. 5 jersey, he emerged from beyond the right-field wall at Roger Dean Stadium between the first and second innings of a game against the Houston Astros.
Cardinals pitchers, catchers and coaches sitting on chairs far down the line stood to acknowledge the three-time National League MVP, as did the fans in the stands. Pujols strolled to the St. Louis dugout on the first-base side, where he was greeted with hearty hugs and high-fives.
“I had to put a little smile on,” Pujols said. “I was getting a little emotional.”
All these years later, the slugger who helped the Cardinals win two World Series championships was home.
The Cardinals and Pujols agreed to a $2.5 million, one-year contract, giving him a chance to end his career in the place where it started. He returns with 679 career home runs.
“Seldom does one get to share in watching or being a part of ‘living’ history,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “From the day we called Albert’s name in the draft room back in 1999, to now, as we set our sights on 2022, this reunion just makes sense in so many ways.
“We are all looking forward to reuniting Albert with his Cardinals family, and for the fan in all of us, including myself, this feels like looking through the pages of a favorite scrapbook or baseball card album and seeing those images and memories jump off the pages.”
Pujols spent part of Monday video conferencing with 39-year-old Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, his teammate during eight seasons in St. Louis.
“I’m happy for him to be here,” said Molina, who likely is in his final season, too. “It’s going to be a fun year.”
Pujols played the first 11 years of his career in St. Louis, teaming with Molina to lead the Cardinals to the 2006 and 2011 World Series titles.
“We’ve only got one thing in mind — winning another championship,” Molina said.
Pujols arrived at the clubhouse in the morning and found Adam Wainwright, who was set to start against the Astros, taking a pregame nap.
Pujols eagerly ambushed his former teammate.
“I had about a minute and a half left until my alarm went off and I just felt a giant man on top of me,” Wainwright said. “I just started smiling. Everybody was laughing because I was like, only one person would wake me up like that.”
Prior to Monday’s Grapefruit League game, Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader posted a photo on social media of what appeared to be a No. 5 Pujols jersey hanging in a Cardinals locker.
Pujols doesn’t swing nearly as fearsome a bat as he did during his St. Louis heyday, but the Cardinals decided they have a spot for a designated hitter who can hit left-handed pitching.
That’s one thing Pujols still does well.
Pujols hit combined .236 for the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers last season, but hit .294 with a .939 OPS against lefties.
“I think I am here for a reason,” he said. “They believe I can still play this game.”
Pujols needs 21 homers to become the fourth major leaguer to hit 700 in a career.
“Adding someone like that is crazy important,” first-year manager Oliver Marmol said. “What he does with that clubhouse outside of his skill set is unbelievable.”
The NL Rookie of the Year in 2001 hit at least .300 with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in each of his first 10 seasons in St. Louis.
A wildly popular player in St. Louis, Pujols played his last game for the Cardinals on Oct. 28, 2011, a Game 7 win over the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
Pujols won those three MVP awards and made nine All-Star teams with the Cardinals before signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels in 2012. He was waived by the Angels last May while hitting .198, and signed with the Dodgers , for whom he hit 12 homers and drove in 38 runs in 85 games.
With use of the designated hitter extending to the NL, the Cardinals found a fit with Pujols as Opening Day on April 7 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium approached.
“This reunion with Albert is a wonderful opportunity for not only him and the Cardinals, but also for our great fans, the St. Louis community, our players and staff, and everyone connected to the St. Louis Cardinals organization,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement.
“We look forward to seeing Albert in the ‘Birds on the Bat’ once again, and wearing his familiar uniform No. 5,” he said.
There are a number of incentives in Pujols’ contract, including: $150,000 for World Series MVP, $100,000 each for regular-season MVP, All-Star, Gold Glove or NLCS MVP and $50,000 each for division series MVP, Silver Slugger honors or finishing second through 10th in MVP voting.