I’m guessing the year was 2002, although it could have been 01 or 03. It was a Friday.
My oldest son had a bunch of his friends over. Middle schoolers. They were in the basement making a lot of noise, which meant I didn’t have to go down to check on them. I was in the family room drinking too much beer and watching the Cardinals.
Albert Pujols was having a career game. At the end of a career week for most MLBers.
I called the kids up from the basement. I told them, “pay attention to Albert Pujols. He’s going to be one of those players you’ll want to tell people you saw play.”
Like I said, I was drinking too much beer.
But I meant it.
This was Pujol’s second year in the Majors, and he was putting up numbers that rarely happen. And he was hitting in the clutch. There was something magic about Albert.
That magic was only enhanced by the mystery surrounding him. He showed up in a Kansas City high school one day. Kid from the Dominican Republic. The Royals drafted him, but they let him go. No one knew how old he was, and the Royals suspected he could legally buy booze as a high school freshman. He didn’t have a birth certificate.
After his rookie year, a lot of people figured he’d be one of those one-and-done players the Cardinals have a history of producing. David Green comes to mind. That’s why I think the night in question was in June or July of 2002. Albert was immune to the sophomore jinx. Albert was for real.
My kids are, of course, much older now. I tell people they’re my age. I figure there are four ages in life: pre-school, school, drinking age, and retirement. Everyone in one of those categories is pretty much the same age. So, my kids are my age.
Here’s the text message I saw first thing this morning from one of them:
I didn’t respond until this evening. Couldn’t think of what to say. So I said this:
Pujols’s return is, for my kids, what Willie McGee’s was for me.
My sons are a little younger than I was when Willie McGee returned to the Cardinals to close out his incredible career. In 1996, he rejoined the Cardinals after six seasons wearing the wrong uniform. I cried then.
I remember listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon calling the incredible game on Labor Day, September 2, 1996, when Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith recreated the magic of Whitey Ball. McGee went 4 for 5.
In the bottom of the 10th, score tied 7-7. The Astros had scored seven runs in two big innings. The Cardinals chipped away at the lead all day, scoring one or two runs in several innings. They tied it in the bottom of the 8th on an RBI base hit by Ray Lankford that scored Luis Alacea. Now, McGee was up with Ozzie Smith at second, Lankford on first, and two out. And the Cardinals were running out of pitchers.
McGee scorched one into center field, a line drive. Smith took off on the pitch, but the outfield was shallow for the play at the plate. The throw was on line, but Smith beat it. The Cardinals win. Willie McGee drives in his old buddy Ozzie Smith to keep the Cardinals’ playoff hopes alive.
Sorry for breaking into the present tense for a moment. I saw that play on the radio, as they say, and the image is as fresh as if it just happened.
My kids would never understand what Willie McGee meant to me, of course, but I know what Albert Pujols’s return to St. Louis means to them. Perhaps the greatest clutch hitter of his era—a guy they watched from rookie to retirement—is back where he belongs.
We don’t know how many memories Albert has left to make, but I will leave you moms and dads and grandparents with this bit of advice: if you have kids who like baseball—or who might one day—help them appreciate what they are about to see. Take them to a game this year to see Albert in his hurrah tour.
The world is a nasty place, and every year you’re in it you learn all the more how nasty it can be. But God somehow saw fit to give us amusements like baseball to remind us to recognize greatness, to be discriminating (especially with no strikes), and to appreciate beauty.
There’s nothing wrong with suspending outrage over the condition of the world long enough to recognize the work of the Almighty in a walk-off RBI by one of the greats of the game. Especially if you grew up idolizing him.
And, just a reminder, every time Albert does something great, he stops to give all the glory to God.