St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols has said 2022 will be his final MLB season. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI, April 22 (UPI) -- St. Louis Cardinals players not only benefit from Albert Pujols' physical presence in the batting order, but they also rely on lessons the veteran slugger offers behind the scenes during his final MLB season.
"That's why I'm here," Pujols told UPI before the Cardinals faced the Miami Marlins on Thursday in Miami. "This is the future of the organization."
At 42, Pujols is the oldest player in the game. He also is one of the most revered by peers.
But the future Hall of Famer made it known when he returned to his original franchise through an off-season signing that he welcomes anyone who requests advice. He said that willingness to teach comes with the "responsibility of being a leader."
The man nicknamed "The Machine" magnetized onlookers from his clubhouse during his batting practice. Teammates frequently pulled Pujols aside, asking for tips and strategies.
"We engage him and ask him questions," shortstop Paul DeJong said. "He also speaks in hitters' meetings and says what he's thinking. He is very much an open book. We are really relying on him."
DeJong said one tip he learned from Pujols was how to hit to certain parts of the outfield against left-handed pitchers.
"Mentally, the way he scouts other pitchers and develops his plan is what has made him so good for so long," DeJong said. "Obviously, he is physically gifted, but his mental approach is where I'm trying to get."
Pujols spent his first 11 seasons with the Cardinals. He hit at least 32 home runs, drove in a minimum of 99 RBIs and hit at least .299 in each of those seasons, morphing into one of the all-time great pure hitters.
He went on to play parts of 10 seasons for the Los Angeles Angels and spent the second half of last year's season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He earned three MVPs, 10 All-Star selections, two World Series titles, a batting title and more accolades along the way. He also received guidance from veteran players throughout his journey, an inheritance of knowledge he passes on.
"We talk a lot of baseball and i just try to learn from him," Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. "He has done everything, seen everything, played for a lot of different teams, won multiple championships. For me, it's about any wisdom I can gain."
Star pitcher Adam Wainwright, who spent his first seven seasons as Pujols' teammate, said it took only one day for Pujols' presence make an impact this spring when he reported to the team.
He noticed outfielder Corey Dickerson was ready to leave the clubhouse and was changing into his street clothes. When Pujols went into the batting cage, Dickerson quickly put his baseball equipment back on and joined him for practice swings.
"He has had the most impact I've maybe seen of any one player in this amount of time," Wainwright said. "His ability to prepare, how to read pitchers, how to know what to expect. ... He is incredible at that.
"He spends so much time learning and studying hitters. ... When you listen to him talk about hitting, he is really kind of a genius."
Pujols hit .236 with 17 home runs in 109 games last season. He hit two home runs through his first five games in 2022. His final season is expected to include many celebrations, as he passes all-time greats in several categories. But the fanfare isn't why the Cardinals brought the slugger home.
"We signed him because we thought he could help us win a championship, not just to get a story out of it," Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. "He is doing exactly that.
"What he brings to the clubhouse ... when you have that veteran group combining with Albert, that is helpful. ... The value there is hard to match."
Pujols ranks No. 11 all-time in games played, and is just 105 behind Rickey Henderson for No. 4 in MLB history. He also could pass Stan Musial, Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter in at-bats and plate appearances.
Pujols' 681 career home runs are 15 shy of Alex Rodriguez's total for No. 4 all-time. His 6,056 total bases are 24 behind Willie Mays for No. 3 all-time. He can climb into the Top 10 for most hits in MLB history with 11 more this season.
A bulk of those totals came during his first tenure at St. Louis. Catcher Yadier Molina was his teammate for eight of those seasons.
He said Pujols' return to the city was like bringing the "family back" together, and that his close friend will ultimately be remembered as a "winner."
The Cardinals averaged 90 wins and won three National League pennants and two World Series titles over Pujols' initial 11-year run with the franchise.
"It always has been about winning," Pujols said. "I'm still active in the game, so It's hard for me to think about any numbers.
"I think for me it's about winning, helping my teammates as much as I can and hopefully winning a championship."