Bernie: Albert Pujols leads the happiness majors. And he made an old sportswriter feel younger again.
Albert Pujols leads the majors in happiness. I hope he knows. He can’t see the smiling faces that are at home, watching from their chairs, jumping out of their chairs, every time he swings the bat and sends another baseball to where the bleachers line the sky.
He plays in front of huge crowds, with enthralled fans standing to attention, enthralled by the moment and the possibility of witnessing another flight of a baseball traveling down memory lane. He can’t see all the people, let alone greet them all, but he absorbs their energy. And he returns the favor.
“Greatness is a spiritual connection,” wrote Matthew Arnold, the English poet.
Somehow, and I know it doesn’t make sense, but we can see its power and then feel its power. You may have a day of denial, sad inside or angry at the world… then Pujols slaps the umpire’s shin with his bat, salutes the catcher, nods at the pitcher and burrows into the batter’s box. At this moment, you can forget all your problems. Happiness fills you instantly.
We can count up to 700, but it is impossible to count the number of people who were emotionally touched, deeply moved and left euphoric by Albert’s incredible feats. His return to Saint-Louis is a total triumph. It’s been such a good time…a special and rewarding gift from a good man.
Pujols delivered again, deeply, on Friday night at the classic American ballpark in Los Angeles. On a clear, lit evening on stage at Dodger Stadium, Pujols flexed his shoulders, extended his thick arms and threw pitches for career home runs Nos. 699 and 700.
Brotherhood 700 now has four members: Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Pujols. But there is an inner circle, a separate club, and only two men can enter.
This is an exclusive space, reserved for the only hitters in major league history who have amassed at least 700 homers, 3,000 hits and 2,000 runs scored.
It gives me shivers. As a teenager, I grew up near Baltimore, worked at my grandparents’ store, and saved money to go to baseball games. In 1976, I bought Memorial Stadium’s most expensive seat and sat alone, three rows behind the Milwaukee dugout. I was there for one reason: to see Hank Aaron perform in person for the first time. The following night I came back, bought another ticket and watched him work from a different vantage point: a few rows from the pitch and directly in front of him as he stood in the box of hitters. It was Aaron’s last season. He was finishing up with the Brewers, having returned to base and the site of his first 12 major league seasons until the Milwaukee Braves franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966.
When I saw Aaron play he was 42 and in his 23rd and final season. His power had faded, but his eminent presence remained fully. I was thrilled to be there, watching the all-time home run leader closely. I can still see that image in my mind. I will never forget him.
Pujols took me back there.
I got emotional on Friday night, watching Pujols from the comfort of my home, the TV flickering and flickering in the peaceful darkness. Both homers re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the left field bleachers. These tours were definitely everything we wanted them to be: regal, sublime and lavish. Both heroic homers drove in five RBIs and sent the Cardinals on their way to an 11-0 win over the mighty Dodgers.
I’m now a 63-year-old man, long removed from those two nights at the ballpark in Baltimore as an excited kid who couldn’t wait to spend 90 minutes on a bus to the stadium to pay his respects to Henry Aaron. Friday night – 47 years later – the feelings were the same. That’s why I’m so excited about the idea of Aaron and Pujols standing side by side forever in history.
La Saison de Pujols moved me in a way that I had not anticipated.
I was overwhelmed by a flood of memories. Friday night, I thought I’d be there in the press box in Arizona for Pujols’ first career home run on April 6, 2001. It was the fifth inning, with Armando Reynoso pitching.
Pujols powered the No. 1 into the left field seats.
It’s just crazy for me to think back to that first home run and realize that Pujols would do it 699 more times and enter the pantheon of his profession.
He’s the kind of player who comes around once every 50+ years, and the astonishing breadth of his career is overwhelming. And just knowing that I was there – for so many days in so many stadiums and cities – to tell the story of Pujols through his first 11 seasons in St. Louis…well, that’s also overwhelming. It is the culmination of the career at the highest level. And here we are, to do it again in 2022. And I take it all in, with a sense of wonder, as Pujols’ star rises higher and brighter than ever.
I’m lucky. You’re in luck. We are all so lucky.
I was 41 when Pujols arrived in the majors in 2001. The previous summer, at the end of the 2000 season, I was sitting in manager Tony La Russa’s office. General manager Walt Jocketty told TLR how excited he was by the stunning performance of a 20-year-old prospect who was selected in the 13th round, No. 402 overall, in the 1999 MLB Draft.
I asked Walt, “When is the kid coming?”
Jocketty’s response: “He’ll be here soon enough. And it will be there for a long time.
The following spring, 2001, I stood behind the net with La Russa to watch the young Pujols practice batting. I have told this story before but it never becomes stale for me. Pujols was bombarding baseballs and hitting the Marlins office building beyond the left field wall. Each time, La Russa hissed, growled, or made primitive sounds. Tony knew. He absolutely knew. This recruit would change everything – the franchise, the life of the manager, the general manager and his teammates. And the rookie would take Cardinal fans on an incredible journey. The long detour to Anaheim was a failure, but No. 5 returned. And that’s all that matters now.
The spring of 2001 was also when Mark McGwire – preparing for what would become his final major league season – calmly predicted that Pujols would become a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This was before Pujols played an MLB regular season game. And Albert only made the opening day roster because of Bobby Bonilla’s hamstring injury.
I can’t name them all or you’d have to spend 25 hours reading this column. But some that stand out for me are there at Coors Field for his first game — and Stan Musial unexpectedly shows up in Denver, as if to pass the torch of greatness to the rookie. The first home run, off Reynoso. His MVP seasons in 2005, 2008 and 2009 – and damn it, he deserved to win two or three more.
There was Brad Lidge’s infamous home run in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. Sitting there in the press box in Houston with my friend and colleague, the late and great Bryan Burwell, we had just filed our columns of Deadline in a hurry… Cardinals lose, season over… when Pujols sent one to the train tracks over left field to save the day. We both laughed, rather hysterically, because the home run was so grand and absurd. Pujols made us rewrite what we had written – and we only had 15, 20 minutes to write a whole new column.
There was the three-home run in Texas in Game 5 of the 2011 series… the way Pujols opened up the new Busch Stadium with a home run in 2006… his home run against Kerry Wood at Wrigley Field …
Opening day in Philadelphia in 2006. I walked into the clubhouse. Pujols smiled and called me Grandpa. I thought something was wrong with him. I asked, “Are you feeling okay?” He laughed and said, “I feel GREAT. It’s going to be a great season. Pujols came out and destroyed the Phillies with two home runs, two walks, three runs and four RBIs in a 13-5 win for a St. Louis team that would end the baseball year celebrating its Series title. world during a championship parade.
I wish I had kept handwritten notes of all those memories.
Heck, a couple of my favorite memories had to do with Pujols being mad at me for something I wrote and letting me know. Intensity and sharpness were components of his excellence. That look in his eye is the closest I’ve come to knowing what it’s like to be a major league pitcher and have this hulking man staring and staring at you.
It has been a privilege for me to spend the last 22 years writing about Pujols, talking about Pujols, observing Pujols and sharing my thoughts on Pujols with so many of you.
The strong emotions that rose in me during the Season of Pujols are understandable.
I’m older now and maybe starting to step back into a career that I love. And it’s not always easy to write; these columns take time. Too much time some days. But I’m still so enthusiastic about writing. I always grind. I came into this business to see greatness and put it into words. Pujols has crossed over and over again. Since July 10 of this season, he has averaged 9.4 at bats. It’s cuckoo – and so wonderfully entertaining. We’re all driven by that, aren’t we?
Watching the Pujols show made me realize how blessed I have been to do this for so long and to have the opportunity to see so many great teams and athletes in the sports world. It’s a personal opinion, but no one has been greater or inspired me more than Albert Pujols. In his last tour, he leads the majors in happiness.
And he rejuvenated that old sportswriter.
Just as Pujols is young again, leading the Cardinals to another playoff.
As the poet wrote: greatness is a spiritual condition.
Thanks for reading …
Over the past 35 years, Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
Although best known for his voice as the Post-Dispatch’s senior sports columnist for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington DC
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.