It was a majestic blast, one that had the typical sweeping arc of an Albert Pujols home run, and it cleared the left-field fence, landing 10 rows back in the bleachers at Busch Stadium. Career home run No. 475 for Pujols, coming Aug. 23 — just before the St. Louis Cardinals were to leave town on a road trip — in a 13-5 victory against the Astros. It was better this way, because the hometown fans in St. Louis could stop the game and give Pujols another standing ovation, this time for tying the franchise's other greatest player, Stan Musial, on the all-time homer list.
That's how it happened, in another place and time. That's how it would have gone down had Pujols not left the Cardinals via free agency and signed in the offseason with the Angels. In some alternate universe without free agency, or in a dimension where Pujols made a different choice. Our reality it less exciting:
In it, Pujols hit No. 475 in the ninth inning of a 4-1 loss at Anaheim as the fading Los Angeles Angels fell again to the Athletics. The fans of Orange County were polite enough, and mention was made of the homer being No. 475 — and No. 30 for the season, giving Pujols a record for hitting at least that many in his first 12 seasons. But it was all in footnote form, a blurb for the record books. Special, sure, but nothin' special. Hey, Albert didn't bother hitting a home run at all for his first month with the Angels (OK, he was probably pressing to make himself look worth $240 million). And he had been going through another home run drought; this was his first in September. By Albert's standards, this day was overdue.
That's what makes the St. Louis celebration (in another dimension) so neat. It was right on time.
Stan the Man, frail as he is, was even at the game to give Albert a hug. The entire event actually was an excuse to honor Musial one more time. That's how Pujols — who detested being called "El Hombre" because Stan already was "The Man" — looked at it. The Budweiser Clydesdale horses were a nice touch, too, delivering 475 roses to Albert and his family, who went onto the field for a brief ceremony. And former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was there, also to give Pujols his regards. All of the living Cardinal greats were there. It was red blazer overload. And the dinner party afterward at Pujols' restaurant was legendary.
The Cardinals do a great job making a big deal of stuff, and this was a big deal. Hitting 475 home runs isn't as elite as it used to be, before everybody and their cousin in the past 10 years started blowing by 500 deeps. But it's still a special number, because of Musial and Willie Stargell, who also hit 475 homers. It's a Hall of Fame number.
But in greater Los Angeles, it's almost just another home run. Who is Stan Musial to the Angels? The Angels will do something special for Pujols on No. 500, as they should. But this one wasn't for them.
The Cardinals have shown they're OK without Pujols. And he's still slugging away, so he's OK, too. But his departure was bad timing, at least for the sake of ceremony. Or lack thereof.