Nightengale's Notebook: How Albert Pujols' final hours with Angels turned ugly

It was one of the most awkward, uncomfortable and ugly good-byes in this generation of baseball immortals.

We’re talking about Albert Pujols.

He woke up Wednesday morning, having already been told he’d be in the starting lineup that night for the Los Angeles Angels against the Tampa Bay Rays.

By the time the day was over, Pujols was yelling at manager Joe Maddon, telling president John Carpino and GM Perry Minasian that he wasn’t going to retire, insisting he did not want to spend the rest of the season on the bench and blasting Maddon’s managerial skills, according to two people with direct knowledge of the day's events who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature the details.

The next day, it was officially over.

Pujols, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, was designated for assignment, his Angels career over.

There was no ceremony. No opportunity for the Angels fans to cheer him one last time. Just a stoic press release and a Zoom press conference with Maddon, Carpino and Minasian.

But not Pujols.

Pujols’ greatest teammate didn’t even know what was happening until Mike Trout asked reliever Steve Cishek why Pujols was hugging players, leading him to tears.

“We were all surprised when it happened,” Trout said. “You know, it hit me a little bit. It hit me a lot. Ever since I’ve been up here, he’s been my guy. He mentored me throughout my career so far.

Career stats of Albert Pujols are displayed near an entrance to Angel Stadium.
Career stats of Albert Pujols are displayed near an entrance to Angel Stadium.

“I can’t thank him enough. He was an unbelievable person and unbelievable friend to me.”

Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez skewered the Angels for the ugly farewell, as well as future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre.

“What happened to him is shameful,’’ Beltre said, “and shows the ugly side of baseball. No matter what, he will always be a legend.’’

Said former Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz on his Instagram account: “I do not agree on the move that just happened. That was devastating for fans and player. I know this is a business, but I was expecting someone like you to walk away like you deserve. You have done so much for baseball that is hard to replace someone like you."

The shame is how it ended for Pujols in Anaheim, but rare are the graceful exits in any walk of life.

Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, along with Ortiz, announced their retirements before the start of their final season. They were wildly celebrated every city they visited, with speeches and farewell presents.

Some, such as Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Jim Thome, become retired only when the phone stops ringing.

It would have been so much easier, of course, if Pujols announced he’d be retiring at the end of the season.

It would have made it near impossible for the Angels to release him during the season. They probably would have felt an obligation to play him, too. But Pujols, who is 33 homers shy of 700, believes he can still play at a high level.

“He really believes, and if he believes, then I believe,’’ said Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, one of Pujols’ closest friends. “So I’d be very interested to see if a club sees the fit. Because they’ll get a very determined Albert."

The White Sox would love to have him, reuniting Pujols and La Russa from their St. Louis Cardinals days, but they don’t have an opening with reigning MVP Jose Abreu at first base and Yermin Mercedes at DH. The Cardinals know how much Pujols means to the organization and their fanbase, but they have Paul Goldschmidt at first base.

Maybe, a young team like the Kansas City Royals make sense for Pujols. Maybe a team that has a sudden need with an injury. Or maybe the phone won't ring for Pujols.

“He’s as motivated as he’s ever been,” Minasian said. “Let me put it this way, if he does go somewhere else and pursue playing somewhere else, I would not bet against him.”

But you can bet that Pujols will be going into the Hall of Fame wearing a Cardinals cap.

Pujols recently told USA TODAY Sports that if he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he’d strongly considering going in with no cap insignia out of respect to the Angels and owner Arte Moreno.

Now, don't be surprised if he goes into Cooperstown wearing a Cardinals cap.

St. Louis is where his heart lies. The city will gloriously celebrate the day Pujols is inducted into Cooperstown. And the franchise will be erecting a statue of him outside Busch Stadium and retiring his number.

It would be fabulous to see Pujols wear the Cardinals uniform one last night, even if it’s for a single game, but Hollywood stories rarely exist in baseball, proven by what happened last week in Anaheim.

Who will be joining Pujols in Cooperstown?

While Pujols is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, he's not the only active player who is a sure thing. There are at least six players who will be joining Pujols in Cooperstown no matter what transpires the rest of their careers, including:

Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Houston Astros starter Justin Verlander

Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw

Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer.

Angels outfielder Mike Trout.

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

Pujols’ dream, he says, is to enter the Hall of Fame with Molina.

“I always tell him, let’s finish together, let’s retire together,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports this spring. “That would be awesome. … He’s the greatest catcher of his time. It’s not even close. Defensively, he might be the greatest of all time.

“I always tell people the Cardinals could afford to let me go, but they couldn’t afford to let Yadi go anywhere else. That pitching staff and that organization would never have the success without Yadi. He’s meant everything to that organization."

Best money spent

Scherzer is proof that some long-term mega contracts work, particularly for a pitcher.

The Nationals ace has lived up to every penny of his seven-year, $210 million free agent contract, which expires after this season.

The numbers: Two Cy Young awards and a runner-up finish, 86-45 record, 2.79 ERA, 1,157 innings, 1,510 strikeouts, 11 complete games, four shutouts, three postseason berths and the 2019 World Series title.

Max Scherzer has been one of the great free-agent signings in baseball history, winning two Cy Young awards with the Nationals.
Max Scherzer has been one of the great free-agent signings in baseball history, winning two Cy Young awards with the Nationals.

It will go down as the third-best team valued contract for a pitcher of at least four years since the advent of free agency.

The best?

Randy Johnson, who signed a four-year contract, $52 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks in December 1998.

The numbers: Four Cy Young awards, three ERA titles, 89-33 record, 2.48 ERA, 1,030 innings, 1,417 strikeouts, 31 complete games, 11 shutouts, three postseason berths, 2001 World Series championship and World Series MVP.


Greg Maddux, who signed for five years and $28 million in 1992.

The numbers: Three Cy Young awards, one runner-up, three ERA titles, 81-27 record, 2.13 ERA, 1,156⅓ innings 883 strikeouts, 38 complete games, 10 shutouts, five playoff appearances, two pennants and the 1995 World Series title.

And that's not including another six years in Atlanta after Maddux re-signed with the Braves.

Excuse me, didn't you used to be the Dodgers?

The Dodgers started 13-2 this season, and it seemed they could finish with the best record in baseball history, but they entered Saturday in the middle of a 4-14 stretch and now everyone is scratching their heads in disbelief.

If Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda was alive, he’d march through those clubhouse doors and give a fiery speech, just as he did one day in the 1990s trying to get the Dodgers out of their slump.

“The greatest team in history, the ’27 Yankees, lost 10 games in a row," he said. “Look at what happened to them. They didn’t let a losing streak stop them from winning the World Series and going into history."

Reporters asked Lasorda later if the Yankees really lost 10 games in a row in 1927?

“How the hell do I know?’’ Lasorda bellowed. “I was born in ’27.’’

The wait pays off

Starter Taijuan Walker didn’t have a job in February, waiting for a team to offer him a contract worth what he believed he deserved.

He spoke to a number of teams.

The New York Mets were on the backburner.

New Mets right-hander Taijuan Walker is off to the best start of his nine-year career.
New Mets right-hander Taijuan Walker is off to the best start of his nine-year career.

They had their sights set on Trevor Bauer, and were convinced they had a deal, until the Dodgers pounced at the last minute and grabbed him.

In need of a starter after Trevor Bauer jilted them for the Dodgers, the Mets shifted gears and signed Walker to a two-year, $20 million deal one week into spring training.

Now Walker is one of the National League's top starters, going 2-1 with a 2.38 ERA in his first six starts.

“He’s a guy you can’t sleep on," Mets catcher James McCann said. "He should be in the talks of being that guy at the top of the rotation, the way he’s throwing the ball, the stuff that he has."

The quiet star

It’s hard to believe shortstop Xander Bogaerts has already played 1,000 games for the Red Sox, only the 30th player in franchise history to accomplish the feat, and only the 10th before his 29th birthday.

He plays virtually every day, remaining in the lineup even with nagging injuries. He has averaged 149 games a year in every full season since 2014.

“To play 1,000 games in an organization,’’ Bogaerts said, “you have to be productive and be a guy that pretty much they can rely on. I’m happy to be the player that I’ve become.”

And, oh, how the Red Sox are thrilled to have him as the steady force on the field.

“I believe he’s the most consistent person in this organization,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters. “I mean, off the field, on the field, physically, what he does in the offseason, the way he takes care of himself during the season. The way he goes about his business. Everything is about winning for him. I know when he came here in 2013, he got a taste, he got a ring, but that was a special group.

“He learned right away what it’s all about play in this market, this city, this stadium, for this franchise. He doesn’t take a day for granted. He’s not as vocal or loud as Dustin (Pedroia) as far as, like, getting dressed at 5:30 p.m. in case they move the starting time a half hour, but he’s always ready. He’s always prepared.”

Around the league

► Lucas Giolito and the White Sox discussed a contract extension during the winter but couldn’t reach an agreement. Now, he is off to a sluggish start, going 1-3 with a 4.99 ERA. One of the biggest differences being cited is that he no longer has his personal catcher, McCann, who signed with Mets in the offseason.

► Cleveland is just the third team in history to be no-hit twice in their first 31 games, joining the 1884 Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the American Association and the 1917 White Sox.

► The Reds still are wondering how reliever Amir Garrett got a seven-game suspension for yelling and pounding his chest after striking out Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw a 102-mph fastball in retaliation at Mike Brosseau of the Tampa Bay Rays and only got a three-game suspension. Hard to see this suspension not reduced.

► Baseball executives predict that Freddie Freeman, who’s eligible for free agency in the winter, will stay in Atlanta with a contract extension similar to the five-year, $130 million deal that Goldschmidt signed two years ago with the Cardinals.

► There have already been three no-hitters by left-handed pitchers after Wade Miley’s no-no for the Reds on Friday, tying the most in a season. The last time it was accomplished was in 1990 when Randy Johnson, Fernando Valenzuela and Terry Mulholland did the trick.

► It’s stunning that Davey Martinez, who was named manager in 2018, already is the Nationals’ longest-tenured manager in franchise history.

► Is it parity, or is it mediocrity? Entering the weekend, no team had even a .600 winning percentage. The last time no team was playing at .600 clip was July 26, 2016.

► How dominant has Orioles ace John Means, who threw their first no-hitter in 40 years, been this season? He has faced 166 batters, and only 38 of those plate appearances were with a runner on base. In those plate appearances, he has yielded just seven singles and a walk.

► Pardon the Twins for praying normalcy returns next year in baseball with traditional nine-inning games and no ghost runners in extra innings. They entered Saturday with an 11-8 record in normal nine-inning games, but 0-11 in all others (0-7 in extra-inning games and 0-4 in seven-inning doubleheaders).

► Dylan Cease made history last week by becoming the first White Sox pitcher since Ted Lyons in 1925 to get three hits at the plate before giving up one on the mound. More remarkable? Those were the first plate appearances of his career.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Albert Pujols' final hours before being cut by Angels turned ugly