ANAHEIM, Calif. – Albert Pujols is 33. He is making do on a sore right knee and left foot. The game is hard, maybe harder than it's ever been. His swing has come and gone and then come creeping back, less reliable like that, and maybe that's the injuries. And maybe other men would have surrendered to the disabled list by now, surrendered to a pain that is new and a .249 batting average that is unfamiliar.
Not Albert Pujols.
On an unusually muggy night in July here, he trudged into the batter's box on Tuesday, tapped plate umpire Todd Tichenor's shin guard with his bat, then did the same for St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Molina reached up with his mitt and nudged the back of Pujols' head.
For the first time since a flurry of late-night phone calls, rewritten contract terms and more late-night phone calls meant he would leave St. Louis after 11 seasons for the Los Angeles Angels, Pujols played a game against the Cardinals. There, he'd been a champion's champion, one of the most skilled players of his generation, a relentless advocate for the best and most holy parts of the game, and helped mold the next generation of Cardinals in his image.
Here, he is 33, banged up, searching.
"It's a tough game," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who'd help mentor Pujols when Pujols was barely out of his teens.
Time speeds by, the seasons go with it, and suddenly you're sitting across the field from your youth. The uniform of your youth. The franchise of your youth. And the kid squatting in full catcher's gear behind you isn't a kid anymore, he's a grown man and one of the better players in the National League, leading a team you once led.
"It goes quick," Pujols said. "I mean, that's life. God has blessed me more than I deserve in this game."
He'd had Molina, maybe a few others, to his place for lunch the day before. By Tuesday it was clear Pujols was enjoying thoroughly this time spent with old friends. They'd become so good together in St. Louis. Some of them became great. He often refers to Molina as "my little brother."
It is Pujols' nature. And it is the Cardinals' culture. Because the next generation comes fast, and the years go with it, and then it's somebody else's turn. Pujols believes he has plenty of baseball left in him. The Angels are hoping that translates to another 8½ years. Healthy years. Productive years. Like all those that came before them, and that feel to Pujols they've gone by in a couple blinks.
"Trust me, yeah, it has," he said, grinning. "Look at my hair. Man, I remember when I had hair."
Pujols struck out twice Tuesday night, walked and grounded out. The Angels won their seventh consecutive game. The opponent happened to be the Cardinals. And Pujols would leave it all at that. He still lives in St. Louis, still runs his charitable foundation from there, still calls it home, and will, he said, "until they kick me out."
Along the way, he said, he'd learned that it does no good to look left or right. He'd played the game. He'd made his choices. He'd helped where he could, because somebody had done the same for him. The Cardinals on Tuesday night would be to his right.
It's enough, he said, "knowing I'm in a good place. You just have to look forward."
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