On October 27, 2011 Cardinal Nation was thrown into a dream.
The Birds were down to their final two outs when their hero, Albert Pujols, came up to bat. Pujols doubled to start a rally that will never be forgotten by Cardinal fans.
Down to their final strike twice they battled back to force a Game 7 in the 2011 Fall Classic. In Game 7 the Cardinals defeated the Rangers to win their 11th World Series title. The title capped a wild 24-hour ride that saw the Cardinals go from the brink of elimination to being World Champions.
It was one of the greatest teams and one of the greatest moments in Cardinals history.
At the center of all the chaotic happiness stood Pujols, the hero who this city loved more than anything, the hero who loved them back, the hero they thought would be with them forever.
Forty-one days later the city of St. Louis was thrown into another dream—only this time, the dream was a nightmare. That hero who would always be there, suddenly was gone.
Albert Pujols was no longer a Cardinal, but an Angel, and there was nothing Cardinal Nation could do to change it. Here now is a look back at one of the greatest careers in Cardinal baseball history.
Albert's journey as a Cardinal began when he was selected in the 13th round of the 1999 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Where does Albert Pujols rank in terms of best Cardinals' ever?
He was the 402nd overall pick. Pujols quickly progressed through the minor leagues and made the big league roster for the Cardinals in 2001.
That year Pujols exploded to win MLB Rookie of the Year and make the All-Star team. The Cardinal rookie hit for a .329 average, had 37 home runs and drove in 130 runs. There was no doubt the Cardinals had a special player.
Pujols continued to tear through the major leagues for his first three seasons.
He helped lead St. Louis to the NLCS in 2002, where they fell to the San Francisco Giants. The Cardinal slugger won multiple awards throughout his second and third seasons, including the Hank Aaron Award, the Silver Slugger Award and another trip to the All-Star Game.
Pujols was turning into a premier player for the Cardinals. He was beginning to be looked at as a once-in-a-lifetime player; a player to build a franchise around.
In 2004 Pujols signed a seven-year deal with the Cardinals worth $100 million. The deal also included a club option of $16 million for the 2011 season, which was obviously exercised by the team just last offseason.
On the field, the Cardinals were a force.
Pujols, along with Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, became known as the MV3 in St. Louis. In the 2004 NLCS the MV3 stepped up and led the Cardinals to a seven-game series victory over the rival Houston Astros.
Pujols was named MVP of the series with his four home runs. In the World Series the Cardinals ran into a team of destiny, the Boston Red Sox. Disappointingly, the season ended with a four-game sweep.
In 2005 the Cardinals were contenders again. This time though it was not an MV3, but an MVP named Albert Pujols who led the charge. Rolen and Edmonds were still there and still productive, but Pujols had won the first MVP award of his career and was the leader of this franchise.
In the 2005 NLCS Pujols gave St. Louis fans a highlight to remember.
In Game 5 the Cardinals were down to their final out against the Houston Astros; the season was almost over, but Pujols was up, and he delivered. On an 0-1 pitch from Astros' closer Brad Lidge, Pujols hit a mammoth home run to silence Houston for the rest of the night.
The Cardinals ended up losing the next game in the series, but they were granted one last game at Busch Stadium in front of their amazing fans because of Albert Pujols.
In 2006 the Cardinals opened up a brand new ballpark. They were once again expected to be contenders, but the regular season did not go according to plan. The Cardinals started off hot in 2006, but fell apart down the stretch to just stumble into the playoffs with only 83 wins.
No team had ever won a World Series with just 83 wins, but St. Louis did not listen to the critics.
Pujols again stepped up when he jump-started the Cardinals offense against the Padres with a towering home run in Game 1 of the 2006 NLDS. The Cardinals went on to defeat San Diego in four games.
The Birds headed to their third straight NLCS in 2006; their opponent was the New York Mets. In a dramatic seven-game series, the Cardinals prevailed to go to their second World Series in just three years. People began to wonder if this team could really pull this off.
In Game 1 of the World Series, Pujols stepped up again.
With the score tied 1-1, Albert hit a two run home run off Tiger ace Justin Verlander to put St. Louis up 3-1. The Cardinals went on to win Game 1, but lost Game 2. The series was 1-1 headed back to St. Louis.
In St. Louis the Cardinals went on a magical three-game run where they capped off an incredible season and won the franchise's 10th World Series Championship. Albert Pujols was not the World Series MVP, but he was a champion all the same.
The next two years were darker times for the Cardinals. The team did not make the postseason either year, and even ended up with a losing record in 2007.
Albert Pujols continued to produce though.
The slugger continued to earn multiple awards and honors throughout the two years, and he capped it off by winning his second MVP award at the end of 2008. The Cardinals did not stay down long though.
In 2009 St. Louis was back in top form. Pujols led the way with his third MVP award, and the team went back to the playoffs after clinching the NL Central.
The Cardinals also added Matt Holliday to protect their franchise player. Ultimately, the 2009 season ended in disappointment, as the team was swept from the NLDS by the Dodgers.
The 2009 season was not just about the results on the field though.
The Cardinals also hosted the 2009 All Star Game that year. Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Ryan Franklin were the three All Stars selected to represent the Cardinals. It was a great time for the city of St. Louis and Cardinal fans.
The city received huge publicity as the game approached, and the Cardinals were given the opportunity to show off their ballpark and franchise player on the national stage.
Pujols participated in the Home Run Derby as well as the All-Star Game in 2009. Although his performance was slightly disappointing, the St. Louis icon fought valiantly and ended up making the semifinals of the Derby.
In the All-Star Game Pujols did not perform extremely well either, but it was an awesome moment to see Stan Musial come out and hand President Barack Obama the ball for the first pitch, which was caught by Pujols. The game ended up with an American League victory though.
In 2010 the Cardinals again fell short of the playoffs, but Albert Pujols put up another historic season. Pujols became the first major league player to hit for a .300 average, have 30 or more home runs and drive in 100 or more RBI in his first 10 seasons.
Pujols again made the All-Star Game, which was held in Anaheim. Kind of ironic when you look back on it, St. Louis and then Anaheim.
The biggest offseason topic after the 2010 season was trying to re-sign Albert Pujols, who was to become a free agent at the end of the 2011 season.
Neither side was able to reach an agreement though, and Pujols received some backlash from the fans. This was quickly forgotten, as Pujols did not want to discuss contract negotiations throughout the 2011 season.
For Cardinal fans, this is a season they will never forget.
Albert Pujols struggled for most of the beginning of the year as he dealt with some injuries. Many people thought that this was the beginning of the decline of Albert Pujols, and the season looked like it would have a disappointing ending again.
The Cardinals got healthy though, made some key moves and then made a historic run to the playoffs.
After clinching a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, the Cardinals faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS. The Cardinals went on to win the series in five games. Pujols hit .318, including a great Game 3 performance where he had three doubles.
The Cardinals then moved on to play the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS.
In the NLCS Pujols had a hit in every game and hit .526 for the series. The Cardinals superstar also drove in nine runs over the course of the six-game series. In the end, Pujols helped the lead the Cardinals back to the World Series.
The World Series was a struggle for Albert, but like a true MVP does, he stepped up when his team needed him the most.
Pujols had a magical night in Game 3 of the World Series, where he hit three home runs in three consecutive at-bats.
When many people look back on the World Series and how Pujols performed, this is what they will look at, but Pujols had another hit that showed why he was a true MVP.
At the beginning of the article I mentioned Pujols' Game 6 double against the Rangers. This double showed the kind of player Albert Pujols was.
The double that was indeed the final hit of his Cardinal career shows why Pujols is considered one of the greatest hitters of all time. Pujols took a 97-mph fastball from Neftali Feliz and stroked it into the gap in left-center field. It was the first pitch he saw.
Pujols was not concerned about having no hits through his last nine at-bats when he stepped in against Feliz. He came up to the plate with confidence, just like an MVP should. He was not going to let the Cardinals' World Series dream die.
Feliz was going to have to strike someone else out, because Pujols refused to fail with the game on the line. He did not swing for the fences, but he just put the ball in play and gave his team a chance. David Freese will be remembered for his triple to tie the game, but do not forget about the quality at-bats from Pujols and then Lance Berkman that gave Freese the chance.
On the next night, after the wild comeback, Pujols and the Cardinals won the franchise's 11th title. In his final game as a Cardinal Albert Pujols walked out a champion.
He would never step on the field at Busch Stadium again wearing the birds on the bat across his chest.
The Legacy of Albert Pujols
No matter what people say or think about Albert Pujols now, his achievements on and off the baseball field can not be forgotten.
In his career in St. Louis, Pujols won 75 major awards, hit 445 home runs, drove in 1,329 RBI, had a lifetime average of .328, broke many records and reached many milestones.
He is the only player in baseball history to hit for a .300 average, have 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBI in each of his first 10 seasons.
Off the field, Pujols and his wife, Deidre, started the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005. The Foundation has raised millions of dollars throughout the years. The mission of the Pujols Family Foundation is to
"honor God and strengthen families through our works, deeds and examples. Since beginning this foundation in 2005, we have sought to help those living with Down syndrome here at home and to improve the lives of the impoverished in the Dominican Republic. Along the way, God has blessed us richly, and for those of you who have been a part of that journey we offer our gratitude." - http://www.pujolsfamilyfoundation.org/
The decade of Cardinal baseball known as the Pujols Era will go down as one of the greatest in Cardinals history. Pujols helped lead this franchise to six NL Central titles, seven playoff appearances, five NLCS appearances, three World Series appearances and two World Championships.
Throughout the past 11 seasons, Cardinal fans across the world were fortunate to see one of the greatest players ever wear the birds on the bat and dominate the game of baseball. A player like Albert Pujols will probably not come around for another 50 years, and a player like Pujols wearing a Cardinals jersey may never be seen again.
St. Louis fans should not stay bitter at Pujols for his decision.
It is extremely disappointing that he left our city, but we saw 11 amazing years. The Angels will take Pujols now, and see the rest of his Hall-of-Fame career, but no matter how many records Pujols breaks, no matter how many milestones he reaches and no matter how many championships he wins, Pujols will always be a Cardinal.
He may not have a statue next to Stan Musial on 8th Street, but Albert Pujols will still be one of the greatest Cardinals ever.
We may lose Albert for the next 10 years, but when everything is said and done, and the Hall of Fame comes calling; Albert Pujols will be a Cardinal again.
No matter what happens over the next 10 years in Anaheim, the story and legacy of Albert Pujols will start and end with St. Louis.
It began with a guy from Maple Woods Community College getting drafted 402nd overall in the 1999 MLB Draft. He became an icon to the greatest baseball city in the world. He was a three-time MVP and two-time World Series Champion.
He launched 445 home runs in the Cardinals' colors. He represented our city in the 2009 All-Star Game. He was a hero to many.
Finally, when the day comes for Albert to go to the Hall of Fame, he will end everything as a Cardinal. As he stands up and speaks of his great career, it will be as a Cardinal once again.
Things will still go on in St. Louis.
When the Cardinals take the field at their home opener in 2012, Albert Pujols will be in New York leading the Angels against the Yankees, but the celebration will still go on. The Cardinals will still be the defending World Champions, the Cubs will be there and will still be hated and the famous Clydesdales will still make their annual march around the field.
Albert Pujols gave us 11 of the most exciting seasons of Cardinals baseball.
It may take many fans time, but someday they will all realize how lucky they were. With their own two eyes they saw the greatest player ever put the birds on the bat across his chest, watched him play in Baseball Heaven in front of the greatest fans in the world and watched him add to the legacy that is Cardinals baseball.
Thank you Albert Pujols for the past 11 years. We may never be lucky enough to see a player like you ever again.