'This is how I want my career to end': In magical final season, one last playoff push for Albert Pujols

THE 35-FOOT WALK from the on-deck circle to the batter's box at Busch Stadium has become habitual to Albert Pujols. He has made it more than 2,000 times throughout his career (4,000 if you count the old place). But something about it felt different on Sept. 2, when he was announced as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter in an otherwise nondescript game against the fading Chicago Cubs. The air was a little more crisp, the atmosphere increasingly more tense. October was approaching, but it seemed as if the entire city was already there in spirit, anticipating what was on the horizon. Eleven years had passed since Pujols last experienced the allure of postseason baseball in St. Louis, but suddenly it was all familiar again. In that moment, it almost felt as if he never left.

"That night got to me," Pujols said. "It hit me. The noise -- it was different."

The finale of Pujols' 22-year, Hall of Fame-worthy baseball career has often felt like a lavish dream. He returned to the place where he became an icon, reached the most distinguished of milestones and, at 42, became a major contributor on a division champion, playing at levels that no longer seemed attainable. As he languished through the better part of the last decade with the Los Angeles Angels, it often seemed as if an entire generation would grow up without ever truly experiencing Pujols' greatness. And then there it was, one final hint of it at the very end. "A blessing," Pujols called it. But the real prize awaits.

The St. Louis Cardinals begin their march through the postseason on Friday, hosting the Philadelphia Phillies in a best-of-three wild-card series. Pujols has spent the 2022 season driven largely by the prospect of hoisting the World Series trophy as a Cardinal for a third and final time, retiring alongside his beloved friend Yadier Molina with ski goggles over their eyes and champagne bottles in their hands. But the opportunity is just as important as the reward. Regardless of what happens, Pujols believes he has already won.

"This is how I want my career to end -- with the fans, with the city, in the postseason," Pujols told ESPN on a recent morning in San Diego. "Man, I wouldn't change a thing."

PUJOLS' FINAL SEASON feels even more incredible when you consider its unlikelihood.

In 2021, Pujols basically rebranded himself in a span of five months, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers around the middle of May -- days after the Angels released him -- and establishing himself as a clubhouse mentor and a lefty masher. Thriving on an elite, decorated Dodgers team and playing meaningful, high-intensity games in front of a rabid fan base allowed Pujols to tap back into an energy that was often lacking as he wasted away on Angels teams that continually went nowhere. But by the following spring, he was exhausted.

He had played deep into October for the first time in 10 years, then spent a stint in the Dominican Republic playing winter ball, making good on a promise to the fans of his home country. When February came and went, and the owners and players still hadn't come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, Pujols wasn't certain he'd ever play again. Then the lockout was lifted on March 10, a universal designated hitter was agreed to as part of it, and Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, implored him to come back.

"Danny," Pujols recalled saying, "I'm freaking burned. I'm tired."

But Pujols came around to the idea, consulted with his children and got their blessing. Fifteen days later, he said, he had offers from three teams -- but the Cardinals weren't one of them. Then their manager, Oliver Marmol, called.

It was a Friday. Pujols was in San Diego watching one of his daughters, Sophia, compete in a gymnastics meet at the convention center near Petco Park.

"You in shape?" Marmol asked.

"Wanna FaceTime to see?" Pujols responded.

But Marmol, at that point 35 years old and heading into his first season as a major league manager, didn't need convincing. As spring training was winding down, he had pored over the roster with Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker and decided it'd be too risky to count so heavily on getting offense from the inexperienced Juan Yepez. A seasoned, right-handed-hitting DH was needed, and Pujols, Marmol thought, qualified as an ideal fit. But Opening Day was in less than two weeks, and Pujols needed to get into camp if he wanted to play. He'd soon be flying to meet with the other teams, he told Marmol, and so the Cardinals needed to make something happen fast.

Later that day, Marmol made his pitch to Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, who still needed time to think it over. There was lingering concern about the fit and the complexities of handling the final stages of an icon's career. But by Sunday morning, Mozeliak began to come around. The Cardinals wrapped up a spring training game against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Florida, later that afternoon. As Mozeliak hit traffic on his way back to Jupiter, he decided to call Pujols himself.

Pujols and Mozeliak had what Mozeliak described as an amicable reunion when the Angels played in St. Louis in 2019, but this qualified as their first phone conversation since Pujols departed as a free agent in the winter of 2011. Mozeliak wanted to make sure there was no lingering bad blood, that Pujols was invested in another full season of baseball and that he genuinely wanted to be a Cardinal again. Pujols disclosed that he had offers to play elsewhere but expressed what it would mean to reunite with Molina and Adam Wainwright and finish his career in a clubhouse with Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, in a city with people who still adored him. Mozeliak was convinced.

At around 8 p.m., Mozeliak and Lozano hashed out the details of what became a one-year, $2.5 million contract. Pujols hopped on a red-eye flight hours later and was on the field, in full uniform, by Monday afternoon, emerging from the right-field corner to a standing ovation. One of the last hurdles between Mozeliak and Lozano hadn't been money; it was about what would happen if it all went poorly.

"I just wanted to understand, 'Could there be an exit ramp?'" Mozeliak recalled. "Luckily we never even had to explore it."

PUJOLS WAS SLASHING only .215/.301/.376 by the All-Star break, producing a .676 OPS that stood 81 points below the league average. Then, in the second half, he hit like an MVP, batting .323/.388/.715 with 18 home runs, 48 RBIs and a 1.103 OPS that ranked second among those with at least 150 plate appearances -- slightly ahead of Mike Trout, slightly behind Aaron Judge.

Schumaker, his teammate with the Cardinals from 2005 to 2011, believes being invited to the All-Star Game on July 19 and getting recognized by his peers "might have rejuvenated" Pujols. But something more tangible had occurred a few days earlier.

Pujols began toying with the idea of starting his hands slightly lower and holding the bat marginally more upright in order to shorten his path through the strike zone and potentially sync up more consistently with the high leg kick he had begun incorporating more regularly the prior summer. Pujols said he tried it during a pinch-hitting appearance against the Atlanta Braves on July 4, then used it in a start against Max Fried two days later. He produced two hits and decided to stick with it. The tweak is hardly distinguishable on video, especially to the untrained eye, but it's a notable change for a man who has been meticulously sculpting his swing since childhood.

"It's just a feeling, bro," Pujols said. "It's all about feeling."

From Aug. 10-22, in a stretch of 29 plate appearances, Pujols homered seven times, the same total he produced through the season's first four months.

On Aug. 10 in Colorado, he culminated a four-hit night with a home run.

On Aug. 14, in front of a near-capacity crowd in St. Louis, and against a Milwaukee Brewers team that was only a half-game behind in the NL Central, he homered twice, the last of which broke the game open in the eighth, triggering an emphatic "This is our house!" declaration before he bounded around the bases.

On Aug. 18 at home, he notched his first career pinch-hit grand slam.

On Aug. 20 in Phoenix, he homered twice.

On Aug. 22 in Chicago, he homered on a fastball level with his head, producing the game's only run.

Suddenly, 700 home runs, a milestone that at various points seemed unattainable, was within reach. His career mark stood at 693 heading into the regular season's last six weeks.

Pujols had been a force when facing lefties, against whom he slashed .393/.460/.964 after the All-Star break. But he also produced at elite levels against righties. And during the stretch run, the Cardinals, who increased their division lead by four games during Pujols' August surge, relied on him as an everyday presence near the middle of the lineup.

He never looked back. Pujols produced an .839 OPS over the ensuing 32 days, a stretch that ended with the two-homer night that produced No. 700 in Los Angeles on Sept. 23. He homered three more times over his last five games, finishing his season with a .270/.345/.550 slash line and 24 home runs in 109 games. His adjusted OPS, of 154, was his highest in a dozen years.

"It literally looks like he's in his 20s again," Pujols' oldest son, AJ, said. "He's so happy right now. I can just tell."

ON THE FRONT lines of Pujols' success this year has been Chris Conroy, an assistant athletic trainer for the Cardinals who has acted as one of the sport's most important curators of history. Ten years ago, at the request of former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, Conroy began collecting important baseballs and marking them with their milestones, assuming a role previously filled by longtime trainer Barry Weinberg. He figured he'd make them look nice, so he found a book on handwriting, bought a special pen and came up with what he describes as "some bastardized version of calligraphy" to note specific dates and numbers and context.

This season -- given Pujols' feats, the history between Molina and Wainwright as a battery, and the 13 rookies who debuted for the Cardinals -- Conroy estimates writing on something in the neighborhood of 50 baseballs. For Pujols alone, he believes, it's about a dozen.

The highlight, of course, was home run No. 700, a milestone previously only reached by Aaron, Ruth and Barry Bonds. But that baseball wasn't retrieved. Pujols also surpassed Bonds to set a new record for the most home runs against different pitchers, now at 458, and the most go-ahead homers since 1961, now at 263. He reached 2,200 RBIs, 3,000 games, 1,900 runs and 1,400 extra-base hits, all of which deserved keepsakes.

"It's incredible," Conroy said. "There's always something."

But Pujols' final season has been defined just as much by moments as it has been by milestones. Like double-high-fiving Nelly or pitching in his first game or being surrounded by fellow All-Stars in the middle of the Home Run Derby or walking off the field with Molina and Wainwright by his side in the home finale. Like the two crying Cardinals fans who embraced after watching him hit No. 696 or one Pirates fan who Pujols told to hold on to No. 697 to commemorate her father's passing or the tens of thousands of Dodger fans who saluted him in the hours before he'd connect on No. 700.

Like the dozens of teammates whose careers have been shaped by his guidance this season.

"I'm telling you that if you go to every player, they'll have a story about how he impacted them this year -- bringing them into the cage, sitting him down, telling him, 'What are you thinking on the bases?' 'What are you thinking out there on the infield?'" Schumaker said. "It's not only on the offensive side; it's defensively and baserunning, pitch-tipping from our own pitchers. It's every guy."

THERE HAVE BEEN times this season when Pujols has noticeably struggled to contain his emotions, a rarity for a man hailed as "The Machine." After he belted his 700th home run at Dodger Stadium -- the place that in many ways resurrected his career -- he found a hallway outside the visitors' dugout so the cameras wouldn't catch him crying. Ten days later, in an on-field ceremony honoring him and Molina, the tears nearly flowed again as he addressed his five children seated behind him.

Pujols became one of the greatest hitters in baseball history through unrelenting discipline and focus, hardly ever deviating from what resided directly in front of him. It was always this rep and this pitch and this at-bat, nothing else. This year, though, he has made a point of taking a step back to see the bigger picture. To appreciate the uniqueness of this moment, to notice how the fans have rallied around it -- to realize that it's almost over.

"It's coming towards the end," Pujols said. "A 37-year career playing baseball, since I was 5 years old, and we're gonna put an end on it. I'm sure there's gonna be some emotion running through me, through my family, but at the same time it's just a blessing."

A little more than six months ago and a little more than four minutes into his opening press conference as a member of the Cardinals, Pujols declared that this would be his final season in the major leagues. He held off on such pronouncements in 2021, even though it marked the end of the10-year, $240 million contract he initially signed with the Angels. But he wanted to do it early in 2022 for one simple reason: to guard himself against the temptation of coming back.

Endings are usually sloppy, even for the inner-circle Hall of Famers. Babe Ruth spent his final season with the Boston Braves and didn't play beyond May. Willie Mays stumbled in the outfield as a Met to cap an otherwise brilliant career. Hank Aaron was a .229 hitter who played in only 85 games in his final year in Milwaukee. Ken Griffey Jr.'s career ended when he left the Seattle Mariners' clubhouse one early June and drove across the country without informing anyone.

But Pujols prefers to focus on the ones who found one last push. He brought up David Ortiz, one of his closest friends in the sport, who finished sixth in MVP voting in his 20th and final season in 2016. He envisioned a similar path for himself and found fuel in the many who didn't believe he could follow it.

"There's nothing that satisfies me more than that -- when people doubt me and I prove them wrong," Pujols said. "I get a little laugh out of it, because I know what I'm capable of doing when I'm healthy in this game."

He believes he could keep playing, but he's also at peace -- both with how it's gone and where it's going.

"I can tell you that I can put my mind into next year and prepare myself and I can still play two or three more years if I want to," Pujols said. "But I'm tired. I'm done. This is it. This is where Albert Pujols' career ends."