By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Adam Wainwright was almost finished with his routine pre-game nap before his start on Monday when he was interrupted.
“I had about a minute and a half left before my alarm went off and I just felt a giant man on top of me giving me the biggest hug,” Wainwright said. “I just started to smile. Only one person can wake me up like that.”
That person was Albert Puols, a former, and as of Monday, current teammate of Wainwright on the Cardinals.
One of the most iconic Cardinals in franchise history, Pujols came back home on Monday, signing a one-year contract to serve primarily as a right-handed designated hitter. The three-time MVP and two-time World Champion had been gone since signing as a free agent with the Angels after the 2011 season, but he said at a press conference that in many ways it was like he never left.
“I felt like yes I might be wearing a different uniform but I felt like I never left,” he said. “The people still treat me the same way whether I was wearing the Cardinals uniform or wearing the Angels or Dodgers. They never change. And that’s what’s so special about the Cardinals’ fans. … I played in southern California for a while but I felt like I never left St. Louis.
“Just to walk into that clubhouse brings a lot of great memories. The first thing I did was go to the back to the (minor league) locker room I was in 2001 when I made the ballclub. From then on every year I came down to spring training I always looked at that locker room because that was where everything started for me.”
After passing his physical, Pujols put on his familiar red number 5 jersey and after the first inning, entered the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium from right field and walked into the Cardinals’ dugout to the cheers of the fans in the stands.
Team owner and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., said he got a quick reaction, and approval, of the signing from fans that he saw before and during the game.
“As I drove into the parking lot, the first person I saw had an,Albert Pujols jersey on,” DeWitt said. “As I walked through the crowd I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said ‘What an exciting day, thank you for making this happen.’”
Wainwright admitted that he, and other Cardinals, had lobbied the front office to bring Pujols back, and not just for nostalgiv reasons.
“I think he’s going to help our team in a lot of different ways,” Wainwright said. “Some of these guys were showered and about ready to leave today and Albert and Yadi went into the cage to hit and they went, ‘I’m going to get dressed and go hit with them. There’s some guys now doing extra hitting drills in the cage because Albert is in there. That’s going to be a great thing for us.
“He seems like he’s in good shape. He’s motivated. Any time Albert’s motivated it’s a very dangerous thing. He’s motivated to show people he’s not too old, he’s not over the hill. I don’t think he wants it to just be nostalgia. He wants to go out and prove something.
“Pretty big day for Cardinal Nation.”
Pujols’ return reunites him with both Wainwright and Molina, whom Pujols referred to as “my little brother.” They were on a FaceTime call together on Monday, before Pujols arrived at the spring training facility.
“I’m happy for him to be here,” Molina said. “It’s going to be a fun year.
“He’s still got it. Just having him in the lineup, he’s an impact player. He’s in great shape, mentally he’s ready to go.”
Having three of the best players in team history together again, perhaps all for the final season of their careers, is going to make 2022 an exciting season, said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations.
“We all hope for a magical year,” Mozeliak said. “One that is defined by team success, and one that honors the careers of Adam, Yadi and now Albert. This is a unique opportunity for all of us – three legends making their final lap around baseball. Storybooks do not always have happy endings. One cannot predict the season, but this story has a chance to be historic.”
Said Pujols, “We have a lot of history together. We want to add more to our history. For us to do it, hopefully we can do it this year and raise that championship trophy. It will be really special for us … ther memories that we have created and that we are going to continue to create.
“I think I am here for a reason. They believe I can still play this game. They believe I can help this organization win a championship. I believe in that too … Everything always happens on God’s time, and this is a perfect time right now. I’m back here and I’m really excited.
“We have to stay focused on what we want to accomplish, and that’s to win a championship. That’s what we are going to try to do.”
Both Molina and Wainwright said they had hoped they would get a chance to play with Pujols again, but didn’t know until Sunday night that it was going to happen..
“It’s a business,” Molina said. “After a couple of weeks before, maybe we have a chance. I’m glad they made it happen. He’s happy to be here.
“We’ve only got one thing in mind – winning another championship.”
Wainwright said, “He signed a long contract. You kind of think that’s going to carry him to the end of it (his career). I remember I was on the fourth hole of a golf course back home when I found out he had signed with the Angels. It was like a life-altering, shifting moment. I’m just glad he’s back.”
Before the signing was officially announced, Manager Oli Marmol spoke in general terms about Pujols and what the presence of a veteran to serve as a right-handed designated hitter would mean to the Cardinals lineup.
“Adding someone like that is crazy important, what he does for that clubhouse,” Marmol said. “Having a presence is important.
“He’s got more than something left. Albert wants to play this year because he can help a team win. It’s not wanting to finish well. I believe he will do that.”
Marmol said he has a good relationship with Pujols, even though he had been gone from the Cardinals for several years before Marmol joined the major-league staff.
“Ton of respect for him,” Marmol said. “It goes both ways. He’s a good friend, he’s a good leader, he does things right. I respect the heck out of that guy and what he brings to a clubhouse. It’s hard to match.”
The Cardinals came into spring training saying they intended to divide the designated hitter at-bats among several players, including Juan Yepez from the right side and Lars Nootbaar from the left side. They already have signed a veteran left-handed hitter, Corey Dickerson, and now have paired him with Pujols, who likely will get most of the right-handed at-bats.
“When you look at the DH spot, do you need a veteran presence? No. Is it helpful? Yes,” Marmol said. “You’re asking somebody to basically take four pinch-hit at-bats. It’s something that’s learned. It’s something that experience definitely helps.
“I had a great conversation this morning with Dickerson regarding putting someone who hasn’t done it before in that spot. It’s a tough ask. As far as having a veteran presence, someone who has done it in the DH spot helps, absolutely.”
Pujols was both a first baseman and DH during his years with the Angels, then worked mostly as a DH during his brief stay with the Dodgers last season. Combined he hit 17 homers, bringing his total for his 21-year career to 679; leaving him 21 away from becoming only the fourth player in history to hit 700 or more home runs.
The Cardinals will open the regular season in 10 days, on April 7, and both Pujols and Marmol said that will provide enough time and at-bats for Pujols to be ready for that game.
He also had a prediction for what the situation will be like on that day at Busch Stadium.
“It will be loud,” Marmol said.
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Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports