How Albert Pujols found happiness with the Dodgers

LOS ANGELES – It was a packed house, a big time and baseball was going skyward in a straight line around October.

Albert Pujols looked in a uniform he never imagined wearing from a place he never imagined he would be. It was teammate Corey Seager’s two-point explosion that ignited the roar that capped a night out in Los Angeles last week. And there was Pujols, in the Dodgers dugout, leading the cheers.

Once, when it was known as The Machine, Pujols ordered his own running projector. Those big moments now mostly belong to others, as Pujols focuses on what is usually a strategically placed nighttime appearance against a left-handed reliever – although with Max Muncy injured, that could change in Wednesday’s game of the National League against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers signed Pujols in May, four days after his unceremonious release from the Los Angeles Angels and in the final season of a 10-year, $ 240 million contract. In his very specific role, he thrived beyond expectations, crushing lefties for a .306 batting average and ending the season with 12 homers and 38 RBIs for the Dodgers.

His teammates rave about his joie de vivre. And now, a man who once ruled the October for St. Louis is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 – and his first test will come against his beloved Cardinals. His frustrating ending with the Angels is erased from the story.

“What happened with the Angels is what happened with the Angels,” said longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. “But as soon as he got here he embraced his role, which has been so huge for us. I think we needed this. We needed this older veteran. His name is Tio, we call him Tio, that type of uncle who helps everyone hit but is also a guy who is happy for you when you are doing well, smiling in the canoe.

Watch him during a match – the smile, the laughter, the cheers, the occasional laser at the end of the inning – and he seems to have found the perfect spot for himself.

Undoubtedly towards the end of his career which saw him register 3,301 hits, 679 homers and two World Series rings, Pujols, 41, sat in the Dodgers dugout some 16 hours after the explosion of Seager and reflected on his unexpected return to October baseball.

“Hey look, these guys were going to have a great year whether I’m here or not,” Pujols said of his Dodgers teammates. “It’s just a great, talented ball club with great management, great coaching staff, great preparation and great batting coaches.

“I am just blessed to have this opportunity.”

In his first 11 seasons – all with St. Louis – Pujols made the playoffs seven times and went to the World Series in three of those years. Since 2011, he has only returned once. He spent most of those October with his wife, Deidre, and their five school-aged children at home in Orange County, California. He rarely watches TV, he said, and that includes the playoffs and the World Series if he doesn’t participate.

“I could catch a run or two here or there, but I think the offseason is a time to cool off and train your mind for the things you want to accomplish for next year,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I watch more Caribbean baseball than the World Series – the Winter League, stuff like that.”

The last months of October, he said, were spent with his children in the pool, biking, going to the beach. The kids’ lobby offers outings to their favorite restaurants, and Deidre cooks a lot at home.

But this week, Pujols will trade it all for one more fall in front of crowded stadiums.

“You can tell he enjoys being part of this team; he really appreciates everybody’s success, being the super former statesman, ”said fellow Dodgers ace Max Scherzer, laughing.

To put Pujols’ age – 41 – into context, four of the 10 managers in this year’s playoffs filled the field in front of him in October as players: Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Gabe Kapler of San Francisco were teammates of the Boston Red Sox team. who swept Pujols and the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. Boston’s Alex Cora was with the Dodgers in a 2004 divisional series between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Craig Counsell of Milwaukee has faced Pujols twice, in a division series in 2001 when Counsell was with Arizona and in the 2011 National League Championship series when he was with the Brewers.

Two other key playoff figures also have extensive experience in October with Pujols: Tony La Russa, now with the Chicago White Sox, led Pujols through the player’s 11 seasons with St. Louis. And Atlanta third baseman Ron Washington managed Texas during one of the defining moments of Pujols’ career: his third game of three home runs in the 2011 World Series that helped St. Louis win a thrilling title in seven games.

“Was anyone surprised?” Nooooo, ”Washington said. “It was Albert Pujols. You made bad throws at Albert Pujols at the time, you injured yourself.

The Dodgers signed Pujols when Seager was sidelined with a broken hand and outfielder Cody Bellinger came out with a broken leg. They imagined him starting some on first base against lefties, knowing he would end up being reduced to a veteran bat on the bench. The acquisition of Trea Turner and Scherzer in Washington at the trade deadline in July, as well as the return to health of Seager and others, indeed reduced his playing time – but didn’t make it any less. precious.

“He sees a lot of things that people don’t see,” said Skip Schumaker, bench coach for the San Diego Padres and Pujols’ teammate in St. Louis from 2005 to 2011. Schumaker called Pujols the smartest player. that he has ever known. .

“He helped me like you wouldn’t believe playing right next to me, telling me what to look for and, by the way, giving me the confidence that I could play next to him on a championship team.” Schumaker said. “It goes so far.”

Dodgers rookie Gavin Lux noticed Pujols’ attention to detail, how even in the batting cage “every little thing matters, it seems like he’s got it all figured out and I always see him talking to hitting coaches.”

During their eight-game winning streak at NL West, the Dodgers incorporated a very successful mentoring program, bringing Chase Utley and David Freese to the end of their careers before Pujols.

“These three are all very different guys,” Kershaw said. “These are guys I respect more than most I’ve played with. Freeser was just a born leader and the guys followed him. Chase was the same way but in a quieter way. People wanted to see what he was going to do before they did something.

“Albert is a little more charismatic, a little more cheerful. He is happy, smiling, enjoying his time. It’s almost like it rejuvenated him in a way, to be a really good team, to be able to make the baseball playoffs again.

Pujols said he remembered his own mentors vividly when he entered the majors as a rookie in 2001. Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, “and my Latin guys – Placido Polanco, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina “. Then various others that the Cardinals added via trade: The Hall of Famer Larry Walker. Reggie Sanders. Woody Williams.

“I think it would be really selfish if I couldn’t pass the wisdom they gave me to these young players,” Pujols said. “It’s something that I embrace and enjoy. It gave me a new boost in my life. This is what I tell them.

“The last four months here, I’m having more fun than I’ve had in a while.”

He’s lived and witnessed enough transitions in the game that when his time came, he surprised some by easily slipping into a new uniform and a new role.

“Look, it’s not rocket science,” Pujols said. “You’ve seen guys with that kind of role towards the end of their careers. I know that I am no longer the player I once was. I think everyone knows that. But I think I can still contribute. That’s why I always wear this uniform. Whenever I get the chance, whether in the field or in a canoe, I will do my best to help this organization.

For the Dodgers, these contributions have proven to be vital. One Sunday afternoon in August, as the Dodgers faced the Angels, Roberts hastily summoned Pujols to pinch Justin Turner in the second inning after Turner strained his groin. Pujols responded with a two-run homerun and played first base the rest of the way. It remains one of Roberts’ favorite moments of this season.

“There is no right with him,” said Roberts. “And if there’s anyone who could feel entitled to it, it’s a Hall of Fame in the first round. But he’s just one of the guys.

Even though he’s no longer the player he once was, Pujols still brings a certain intimidating factor to the game that is hard to replicate.

“You bust that southpaw, you know he’s going to get out of that dugout,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of the scheduled late-inning clashes. “You’re pretty darn sure where he is. “

How old is Pujols, besides 41 years old? Scherzer is a St. Louis native who supported Pujols through high school before graduating in 2003. He was drafted from the University of Missouri in 2006, the year the Cardinals beat Detroit at the Worlds. Series. While the pair should one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Scherzer, 37, remains dazed at the idea of ​​sharing a clubhouse with Pujols, his former hero.

“It’s not normal,” Scherzer said. “It’s not normal for me to play with Albert Pujols.

Indeed, when the Dodgers were in St. Louis last month, Scherzer took a moment to gather Pujols for a photo.

“I don’t care what you say,” Scherzer told Pujols. “I have to take a picture with you in front of the Ark.”

Now, as Pujols enters the playoffs for the first time in seven years, he has every chance of doing more than just a photoshoot. Then there’s one more chapter against who else, the Cardinals.

“It’s crazy,” Pujols said. “You can’t even write that. “

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