On April 2, 2001, Albert Pujols stepped into the box for the first time as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, who were playing the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. He grounded an 0-1 pitch from Mike Hampton to third baseman Jeff Cirillo, who threw over to first baseman Todd Helton to record the out.
On October 4, 2022, Albert Pujols stepped into the box for the last time as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, who were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. He laced a 2-2 pitch from JT Brubaker to center field, singling in two runs and giving the Cardinals a 3-1 lead.
On June 3, 2004, Yadier Molina stepped into the box for the first time as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, who were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. He popped a 1-1 pitch up where it was caught by second baseman Abraham Nunez to record the out.
On October 5, 2022, Yadier Molina stepped into the box for the last time as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, who were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. After fouling off several 2-2 pitches, he lined out to second baseman Tucupita Marcano.
Those are the end points to a couple of careers that were so incredible, even labeling the “Hall of Fame” doesn’t feel like it does them justice. These are careers that are going to reverberate throughout at least Cardinal history, if not MLB history, forever.
Pujols’s story is one of historic heights and signature moments. It’s also a story of exile, as he chose to spend the latter half of his career away from the adoring crowds under the Arch. There’s an argument to be made that this was really for the best for both sides–perhaps I’ll make that at the Substack at some point–but there’s also no doubt that being removed from St. Louis drained Pujols. Then, in his final baseball moments, he returned like the prodigal son. Much like the prodigal, there was a party thrown for the man that meant so much. Unlike the prodigal, he provided a lot of the entertainment for the party.
Molina’s story is one of remarkable durability and incredible intelligence. Molina spent all of his 19 years wearing the birds on the bat. Much like the older brother in the prodigal story, he never left home, putting all his heart and soul into winning Cardinal baseball. Unlike the older brother, though, he had no grudge against the return of the prodigal. Instead, he helped facilitate it and help celebrate it while also being celebrated himself.
And here we are, at the final bow. They both have the playoffs to come, though given Molina’s usage through the last couple of weeks, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t see playing time in every game, which is a radical concept. He missed the last three games of the 2014 NLCS with a strained oblique. Otherwise, he caught every game from Game 4 of the 2004 World Series to last year’s wild card play-in game. He has played, so far, in 102 playoff games. He’s caught a complete game in 89 of them, including a couple of extra inning affairs. While it’s a smart and reasonable baseball decision, it’s going to be very weird to have a playoff game with Yadier Molina sitting in the dugout.
Pujols, of course, has gone from fans having discussions in late June about whether he’d be left off of any postseason roster to a fixture in the lineup, no matter what hand the starter throws with. The legend that so often came through in big spots, the man you could count on to bring in a run, spent the last half of the season putting together a second half that was not only good for a 42-year-old, it stood with the rest of his work as a Cardinal and was not found wanting.
Compare how Pujols went out to the players ahead of him on the home run list. Babe Ruth didn’t make it all the way through his final season, calling it quits at the end of May in part due to conflicts with management but more because he was a shell of his former self. He only got into 28 games in his final season and, though he did have one last three homer game, he went 0-9 with four walks after that to wrap things up at .181/.359/.431.
Hank Aaron, like Pujols, returned to Milwaukee for his final two seasons. Of course, his situation was different–he didn’t leave the Braves, the Braves left Milwaukee, taking him and everyone else to Atlanta, where he set the home run record. Aaron’s last season in Milwaukee was a struggle, as he played in only 85 games. In his last 45, he hit .221/.331/.397 with his last six homers. He was removed for the final time after singling in a run on October 3, 1976.
Barry Bonds….well, that’s a different story. By the time that Bonds played his final season, the steroid cloud was thick around him. Perhaps due to that unnatural augmentation, it was clear that Bonds could still help a team, even going into an Age 43 season. His last season, he led the league in walks (132) and because of that OBP (.480), he hit 28 homers, and had an OPS of 1.045. He was intentionally walked 43 times that year. In his last 45 games, he slashed .273/.447/.579 with 11 homers. When he left the field after flying out to center field on September 26, 2007, it wasn’t clear that Bonds was done in baseball, though he had run his course in San Francisco. Bonds wanted to continue playing, but nobody would pick him up due to the controversy around him (and, perhaps, the reputation of his personality.)
Pujols’s final season stacks up pretty well with Bonds’s. After a very slow start–as the man himself said, he was questioning his decision to play one more year for a while–he posted a 1.103 OPS in the second half. His last 45 games? Sixteen home runs, 42 RBI, a .307/.375/.724 slash line. Pujols, truly, was a different breed and it seems clear that, if he hadn’t make the commitment to retiring, he could easily come back and take out the Babe for third next season.
Molina’s final run wasn’t as dramatic as his friend’s. Molina struggled with injuries and was to a point that, when he left the team mid-season to rehab, his partner Adam Wainwright wasn’t sure Yadi was coming back. History pulled at him, though, and eventually he and Waino wound up in 328 games together as starting battery, a record that could have possibly pushed 400 without pandemic and complete seasons missed by Uncle Charlie. September Yadi, as Oli Marmol called him, made an appearance at the beginning of the month, as he hit .325 with three homers in 11 games through September 17, but the surge couldn’t last and Molina wound up getting only the pinch-hit appearance in his last series, missing more games in the last 15 days or so (nine) than he did in half a season back not that long ago. The last three base runners that attempted to steal were successful, with the last caught stealing recorded for him being Nick Senzel in the second inning on September 18, but that was a pickoff by Jordan Montgomery. Before that, September 15 he caught TJ Friedl stealing home as part of a botched double steal. The last true Molina caught stealing was one of the classic strike-em-out-throw-em-outs that he and Waino did so often, getting old friend Kolten Wong easily at second.
It’s hard to fathom Cardinal baseball with Yadier Molina behind the plate, swinging at the first pitch, and so often coming up clutch. While Andrew Knizner has looked fine at times behind the plate (and at it), it’s safe to say the position will be a little unsettled next year and perhaps for years to come. After all, it’s hard to replace a legend. There’s never been a shortstop since that measured up to Ozzie Smith, after all.
Even though we had a decade to get used to it, after 2022 it’s going to be a little weird without Albert Pujols wearing Cardinal red as well. We all fell right back in love with the guy, perhaps even more so as he showed that his flair for the dramatic wasn’t tied to the stoicism of his first time but would be available even when he’s smiling and laughing and not feeling the pressure to carry the entire team.
We got a lot this year, but I wish we could have gotten one more of those legendary pickoffs at first that the two guys turned into such a weapon before 2011.
(Albert gets all the attention for his hitting, and rightfully so, but he was a great fielding first baseman and occasionally engaged stealth mode to steal bases as well.)
We’ll come back and talk about the rest of the team, catch up on Heroes and Goats, and talk about the playoffs. Right now, though, it’s a day to remember these two and savor everything they’ve given to the organization and the fanbase. It’s cliché to say we’ll never see their like again. It’s also very, very true.