ST. LOUIS – As the Cardinals prepare to host the Phillies at the Wild Card Serieswhich kicks off this Friday with Game 1 at Busch Stadium (2:07 pm ET), the Dominican superstar Albert Pujols revealed in a candid interview with MLB.com that he came close to retiring midway through the season. That’s why, during his retirement ceremony last Sunday, he said there were times when he wondered what he was doing in his 22nd major league season.
Asked this week if he really felt that way, Pujols had this to say: “Yeah, I swear I did. There were times when I asked myself that, many times.”
John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, was among those who knew Pujols was contemplating retiring in June. Others were also aware and have said that they will talk about that turning point in more detail when the season is over.
“We were aware that there were some difficult moments, but we are happy that he was able to fight through them and overcome them,” Mozeliak said Thursday.
Pujols acknowledged that the support of the team’s staff that was around him all year convinced him to give up the idea of retiring in the middle of the season. Everyone knows what happened next. In early July, Pujols cracked his mechanics and told manager Oliver Mármol, hitting coach Jeff Albert and his good friend and hitting coach Alex Cintrón that “I think I figured something out.” Three months later, he joined Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only players in AL/LN history to have given 700 home runs.
“When you have good people around you and they are supporting you and you realize that God has opened so many doors for you, brother, that puts things in perspective,” Pujols said. “And I decided, ‘I’m going to keep going!’ I knew that sooner or later things were going to take a turn for me, because they couldn’t continue as they were for the whole year.
That ended up being true. Pujols hit three home runs in July, eight in August, seven in September and two more in October. And when he took off the gunboat, the Cardinals took off. Between July 30 and September 7, St. Louis went 28-8, going from four games behind the top of the NL Central to 9.5 games ahead when the season ended. During that key stretch, Pujols hit nine homers and carried the Red Birds in a manner reminiscent of his first stint with the franchise from 2001-2011.
How much did Pujols help with his home runs? The Cardinals are 16-1 in the first 17 games when he homered and 0-4 when he hit two balls in one game. At one point in the second half, seven of his 11 homers went to tie the score, or give St. Louis the lead.
“There’s no way we would be in this position if Albert doesn’t turn on,” Marmol said. “That evolution (Pujols’ problems and his later successes) was something very special, though. He did a tremendous job trusting his work habits, because it would have been very easy to choose another path and continue to question yourself because the results were not there, especially when you know what you are capable of doing. But he believed in himself. He made adjustments. And now we’re talking about him at times he carries the offense for a week.”
Even now, nearly three weeks after the night he joined one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball history, Pujols is emotional about how his decision to keep playing culminated in one of the most vulnerable moments of his career. 22 years in the Big Top. He had cried many times after big wins, nearly breaking down years ago from career-threatening knee and foot injuries. But Pujols had never allowed his emotions to well up the way they did in the dugout tunnel after hitting his 700th home run.
“It hit me really hard, because I was feeling that weight of responding to so many people,” Pujols said. “God has given me this talent and joy for the game, and I was moved because there were so many people supporting me and pushing me. They are people who love me and who have always supported my career, and I wanted to do it for them. I don’t want to say ‘pressure’ because that word sounds very strong. I really wanted to do it for them.”
There is only one other thing, said Pujols, capable of producing such strong emotions in him again. That, of course, would be winning another World Series with the Cardinals.
“It’s my last year and I want to go for the top,” he said. “And the highest thing for me is to win a championship.”
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Pujols confessed that he was close to retiring in the middle of the campaign