ST. LOUIS – The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies did not have Albert Pujols. Their hero was a guy named Johnny Callison, and on Sept. 27, 1964, as the Phillies were reaching the denouement of the greatest regular-season collapse in baseball history, he hit three home runs against the Milwaukee Braves. Of course, Callison’s first homer came in the sixth inning, when the Phillies were already down 12-3. Not all saviors actually save.
Forty-two years to that day, on Wednesday night, Pujols dug in against San Diego Padres reliever Cla Meredith, practically unhittable the last two months. Visions of ’64, when the St. Louis Cardinals raced past the Phillies, were dancing everywhere. The 2006 Cardinals had lost seven straight while the Houston Astros had won seven in a row to climb within 1½ games of St. Louis' National League Central lead. Paranoia festered inside their sterile new ballpark, and over radio airwaves, and through cyberspace, and among their rabid fan base, the one that has seen its confidence erode after every (dumping longtime radio station KMOX) silly (building a stadium because old Busch was … old) move (going on the cheap in free agency).
So Pujols. Down 2-1 in the eighth inning, he saw the second pitch from Meredith, and if it wasn’t fat as an opera singer. When Pujols connected, every Cardinals player leapt from his spot on the bench, all of the fans from their seats around the stadium, John Nelson and Aaron Miles from their bases and Meredith from the pitchers’ mound. Pujols, the yin to everyone’s yang, stood there stoic, an artist admiring his work, watching the ball travel 425 feet into the third deck, seeing the Cardinals’ skid go right with it, lifting St. Louis one more time, like he’s got a clause in his contract that requires at least a dozen EKG moments a year.
And that is the difference between Albert Pujols and Johnny Callison – between Albert Pujols and anyone, really, for that matter: He carries his team. Better than David Ortiz. Better than Ryan Howard. Better. Than. Anyone.
“That’s my job,” Pujols said after the Cardinals' 4-2 victory. “That’s why I get paid. I get paid to drive runs in. I can’t steal 100 bases or 60 bases. My job is to drive runs in and help my team out to win any way I can.”
On this particular night, it happened to be with a piece of lumber he wields with such force and precision that he can look simultaneously brute and dainty. Pujols’ swing is a contradiction like that: teeming with anger, his wrists flexing, his knees bobbing, his neck frozen, yet every piece of it in sync, his left foot pivoting, his hips rotating, his arms following through in harmony. Of his 47 home runs this year, 19 have given the Cardinals a lead. And of those 19, manager Tony La Russa said, “This is the most huge of the huge.”
With one swing, Pujols might have won himself the NL MVP award, trumping Howard’s second-half flurry. His penchant for the memorable is growing, and Pujols seems primed to finish with the same kind of flurry he started the season, the one, remember, that spurred the frenzy about him surpassing 73 home runs.
Back then, no one realized Pujols would have to be the Cardinals’ alpha and omega. With Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion and Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, the supporting cast seemed, at very least, passable.
Excepting Carpenter, who has been brilliant on the mound, the rest have been solid, injured, OK and injured, respectively. Rather than an ensemble, the Cardinals have become the TV show with two marquee stars and a bunch of filler – a sitcom of sorts.
“You can’t describe how important he is,” Carpenter said. “He gets big hits all the time. I’m just glad he’s on my team.”
How all of St. Louis agrees with Carpenter. Pujols is still just 26, in his sixth full big-league season, long past his 1,000th hit and 750th RBI, and nearing his 250th home run. He is the Dominican DiMaggio, a 56-game hitting streak more feasible with him than anyone.
“It’s a relief because we were in a seven-game losing streak,” Pujols said. “But, hey, we weren’t panicking. We still have four games left. Hopefully, we don’t have to play that game Monday. If we do, then we need to be ready for it. We don’t look at magic numbers.”
Perhaps not, but Pujols does watch ballgames. He sat on the edge of the players’ lounge by himself after the game. Wrapped in ice around his waist that made him look like he’d strapped on a fake pregnancy belly, Pujols ignored the ear-splitting reggaeton and focused on the game. Although he had invested so much into his own contest, Pujols couldn’t relax with another equally important one brewing.
The Astros were in extra innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pujols stared over a plate of chicken breasts, meatballs and salad. No one spoke with him. It was just Pujols and a plasma, until he could wait no longer. He exited long before Houston won in 15.
About 10 minutes after Pujols left, Scott Spiezio toiled around the Cardinals’ clubhouse. He spent his whole 10-year career in the AL prior to this year, and as the occasional cleanup hitter behind Pujols, Spiezio can appreciate him up close. It’s almost as though Spiezio feels bad that Pujols is a one-man band, a strategy that has not fared well in the playoffs. Last year, Pujols went 12 for 32 in October, including the home run that ended Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against Houston and torpedoed Brad Lidge, and the Cardinals still couldn’t make it to the World Series.
“We need everybody to get hot,” Spiezio said, “because he can’t do this by himself.”
Tell that to anyone who saw Wednesday night’s game.
The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals do not have Johnny Callison. Their hero is a guy named Albert Pujols.
And who knows? Maybe that is enough.
- Johnny Callison