Opinion: Cardinals celebrate Albert Pujols in emotional return to St. Louis

ST. LOUIS — Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols has made the walk to home plate 11,940 times in his career, but Friday night it was as if it was foreign terrain.

Every step he took, every time he raised his foot, the ovation got louder and louder at Busch Stadium until it became deafening.

It may have been hard for Pujols to even see the plate with his eyes getting misty and no one around to help.

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, Pujols’ best friend in baseball, stepped away from the plate and then stood in front of it. Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha stepped off the mound. Some of the Cardinals took off their gloves.

There were 49 players on the field and in the dugout and in the bullpen, cheering and clapping right along with the 45,000 fans who came to witness the return of one of the greatest players to ever wear a Cardinals uniform.

Pujols took off his helmet, waved to the crowd, and then he and Molina hugged one another.

Welcome back, Albert. pic.twitter.com/eHFdrNa934

The ovation lasted for 90 seconds, but they weren’t ready to stop, still standing and cheering when Pujols stepped in the box ready to hit.

Then, with one swing of the bat, there was a loud gasp. Pujols drove the ball to deep center field, only to land in Harrison Bader’s glove, with fans showing disappointment that it didn’t go out.

It was such a dizzying night that when Pujols went to first base in the bottom of the inning, drawing more cheers, there soon was an emergency announcement blaring over the loudspeakers, telling fans to evacuate.

Many in the upper deck started clearing out as the players came off the field and the managers and umpire crew huddled. It was a false alarm. Two minutes later, order was restored, and it was back to being Albert-palooza.

It’s Day 1 of a weekend that he will treasure forever, basking in the glory, reminiscing about all of the great times, with former teammates, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, and former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty on hand to celebrate the occasion.

"All of us who enjoyed (Pujols’) 11 Cardinals years want to welcome him home," La Russa tweeted. "That group totals millions. Only 45,000 can do it in person, but he will know it includes everyone!"

All of us who enjoyed @PujolsFive’s 11 @Cardinals years want to welcome him home! That group totals millions. Only 45,000 can do in person, but he will know it’s includes everyone!

The Cardinals were willing to honor Pujols with an on-field tribute, letting him have the microphone before the game began, but Pujols declined, instead letting the Cardinals honor him with a scoreboard tribute.

The tribute lasted about two minutes, and when it ended, not only the fans were standing and cheering, but the Angels and Cardinals teammates who were standing on the top step of the dugout.

The fans began celebrating Pujols’ arrival all day. There were fans lined up outside Busch Stadium at 8:30 in the morning hoping to acquire standing-room tickets. The game was sold out for months with ticket prices soaring to $500 for left-field bleacher tickets. Fans stood outside in the rain during the afternoon waiting for the Angels’ team bus, unaware that Pujols was actually driving his own car to Busch Stadium.

When he made the 30-minute drive into the parking lot, arriving at 2:35 p.m., he walked past the Cardinals’ clubhouse, turned left, and then right, hugging and shaking hands with everyone along the way. There were the security guards, the clubhouse attendants, the stadium ushers who rushed up to say hello.

Pujols dressed, and when he was a few minutes late for his scheduled 4 p.m. press conference, his cellphone buzzed. It was Molina.

"Hurry up, will you," Molina said. "We’re waiting!"

Pujols walked towards the press conference room, and there was Yadi and his brothers Jose and Bengie Molina waiting. There was Jim Edmonds, his former Cardinals teammate who left the Angels and became a Cardinals Hall of Famer. And there were Cardinals public relations officials, broadcasters, TV crews, photographers all waiting outside.

Albert fans for life! ❤️ pic.twitter.com/0ucy1op8j1

When he settled into his seat behind the podium, he took a chug of water and sat down for 23 minutes in the most engaging press conference of his incredible career, trying to keep his emotions in check and almost losing it when he talked about the late Darryl Kile, his former Cardinals teammate.

"I was going onto the team bus my rookie year," Pujols said, "and DK was the one who told me, 'Don’t be afraid to make the All-Star team.' "

It may have been the greatest understatement Kile ever uttered.

Pujols wound up making 10 All-Star teams, winning three MVP awards, with nine top-five finishes, and leading the Cardinals to two World Series titles in their greatest run in franchise history.

Now, eight years later, with the Cardinals in their biggest postseason drought in 20 years, they packed Busch Stadium for the chance to pay homage to one of the greatest players ever to wear the Cardinals uniform.

"Had he stayed here, he probably would have been the greatest Cardinal who ever lived," Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "As great as Stan (Musial) is and Bob (Gibson) and Ozzie (Smith) and all those great Cardinals, I think Albert would be at least in the conversation.’’

Pujols has been long gone, but the Cardinals have never given out his number. It will be retired one day and never worn again. There will be a statue one day of Pujols, too, right alongside Musial.

"God put me in the right organization at the right time," Pujols said. "I came here as a little boy, and left here as a grown man."

Pujols never got a chance to say good-bye when he departed as a free agent for a record 10-year, $250 million contract.

But now, it was time for him to say hello again, thanking everyone for welcoming him back home.

"I know there were a lot of people who probably had hurt feelings,’" Pujols said, "but I came back (in the off-season) the same year and never felt that. I think at the time, it was hurtful. I’m being honest, I haven’t had a bad experience.

"It’s a great town, not just to play baseball, but also to raise your family. That’s why I still have a home here.

"This weekend is going to be pretty amazing for me."

The feeling was mutual in the Angels’ clubhouse, too.

"I know he’s a legend here in St. Louis," Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy said, "and it’s great for us to be part of this night and witness it. We get to witness where he made his Hall of Fame case."

Pujols knows there will be a teammate one day joining him in the Hall of Fame. His name is Mike Trout. This was the first time Trout played in St. Louis, the only visiting stadium in which he had yet to play, and Pujols tried to spin the narrative, telling Cardinals fans how excited they should be to see him. Pujols even brought Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt’s kids into the Angels clubhouse to meet Trout.

Trout is the greatest player in the game today, but for 11 years it was Pujols.

"This means a lot to him," Trout said. "It seems like every year we talk about going to St. Louis, and he talks about how great of a city it is and the fans. The fans here appreciate the game of baseball.

"It’s special for him and his family, but the whole team is looking to be a part of it. It’s going to be a pretty special, emotional, couple of days."

The celebration has just begun.

Follow columnist Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale.

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