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Albert Pujols: A legend's long goodbye

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Unless you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan, you likely haven't thought of Albert Pujols in a long, long time. And unless you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan, you might have forgotten that Pujols put together a decade of performance that ranks up there with the greatest in baseball history.

But if you are a St. Louis Cardinals fan, you’ll never forget his first grand slam, in a crucial late 2001 game against Pittsburgh. Or his three-homer game in 2004 against the Cubs that keyed a comeback from down 7-1. Or the three-run jack in the 2004 NLCS against Houston that was so massive it seemed like it was still traveling upward when it caromed off the back wall of Minute Maid Park. Or another three-homer game, this one coming in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series. Or so many more memories of walk-offs and clutch hits, a string of thrilling moments now more than a decade in the past.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim released Pujols on Thursday, barely a month into the final year of the 10-year contract he signed after leaving St. Louis. It marked the sad, muted end of one of the stranger cliff-dives in sports, a turn where Pujols abruptly plummeted from world-beating titan to irrelevant extra.

The only thing really surprising about the (possible) end of Pujols' career is that he was still playing. He'd shined so brightly in St. Louis, his time in California couldn't possibly compare.

Pujols arrived in St. Louis in 2001, joining a team mostly better known as Mark McGwire's supporting cast. He would go on to unleash hell as a Cardinal, dominating every phase of the game and forever capturing the hearts of a fanbase that — for all its faults and self-aggrandizing — understands god-tier baseball.

How good was Pujols? His MVP voting ranks for his 11 seasons in St. Louis run like this: 4, 2, 2, 3, 1, 2, 9, 1, 1, 2, 5. He won the Rookie of the Year, he won Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves. He won two World Series, and he won the undying loyalty of St. Louis fans ... if not St. Louis management. Pujols left St. Louis when the Angels offered him a monster decade-long deal; every man has his price, and Pujols' was a quarter of a billion dollars.

What happened next? A cursory glance at his Baseball Reference page basically tells the story. Statistics are bold and italic when the player leads the league in a given category, and Pujols' St. Louis tenure is dotted with evidence of is league-leading status in runs, hits, homers, average, on-base percentage and intentional walks. The only thing he ever led the league in as an Angel? Grounding into double plays.

Pujols made exactly one All-Star Game as a member of the Angels, after making nine in 11 seasons in St. Louis. Injury-riddled, frustrated, and playing in the shadow of another all-time great in Mike Trout, Pujols piled up numbers like he was stacking heavy firewood, slowly and deliberately.

The ground-shaking investment the Angels made in Pujols never paid off in wins — Los Angeles reached exactly one postseason series in Pujols’ tenure, and got swept right out of the playoffs — but that’s not his fault. The team has rotated through managers and GMs, never settling on a competent pitching staff to help out Pujols and Trout.

Injuries and superior younger talent doomed Pujols’ tenure. Pujols’ final few years showed a marked decline, and by 2021, it was clear the end was near, and not just because the decade-long contract was almost up. This year, Shohei Otani and Jared Walsh are playing well enough that they block Pujols’ routes to the starting lineup at designated hitter and first base. You don’t pay someone $30 million to sit on the bench, and that meant it was time for Pujols to go.

You play in the majors for 20-plus years, even with half of them at reduced power, and you're going to climb some leaderboards. Pujols ranks fifth all time in homers, third in RBI, and second in intentional walks. He ranks 32nd all-time in Wins Above Replacement, and the only people ranked higher than him who aren't already in the Hall of Fame — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez — are all steroid-tainted. He was a Hall of Famer before he left St. Louis, but Los Angeles gave him the opportunity to put that extra gleam on his numbers‌.

Some team might — probably will — pick up Pujols, a team that could use a little veteran leadership and some occasional lumber off the bench. He could reunite with Tony La Russa in Chicago, or slot in with Kansas City as a designated hitter. He might well end up back in St. Louis, taking one last turn in the city where he once ruled baseball. That would be a nice little closing of the circle.

Don't feel sorry for Albert Pujols; the man lived the dream for two decades. But if nothing else, his Angels years show just how hard it is for even the best to stay on top.

Albert Pujols is headed to Cooperstown ... but you wish he wasn't limping there.

ST LOUIS, MO - JUNE 23: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim acknowledges a standing ovation from the fans prior to batting against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on June 23, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Albert Pujols acknowledges a standing ovation from the fans prior to batting against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on June 23, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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