Pujols chase history at home as Cardinals chase playoffs

Independence, Mo. Rodolfo Castro doesn’t remember how old he was when he first met Albert Pujols, or even the exact circumstances, whether it was in a major league game or during one of the great player’s charity trips to the Dominican Republic.

But Castro remembers how he felt. It was that childlike feeling of wonder that comes when you meet your hero.

“I know I was a little kid,” Castro, now 23, remembers the Pittsburgh Pirates player. “And I was too shy to approach him because I knew his niche and knew what he represented.”

Only last year, after Castro signed for the Pirates and climbed every grueling rung on the minor league ladder, did he learn he had nothing to fear. The Buccaneers were playing the Dodgers and Castro had a tie in the fifth inning.

He said: “The Pujols was playing first base and we had just had a little chat and he gave me a very warm welcome to the major leagues and just congratulated me. Then that same series, the next day during BP, I was able to confront him and I reached out and just told him how pleased it was To meet him and what a great honor to be able to play on the same field as him. He was very warm with me and encouraged me to keep playing.”

Walk into any major club in the league and you’ll be bound to run into someone with a similar Pujols story – a laugh shared during batting practice, an off-season meeting opportunity, a chance to work with them in the community. It is freely shared as the former star tries to reach the five other teammates he needs for the 700 in his career.

Oftentimes, though, the stories relate to the way the Pujols inspired an entire generation of baseball players, especially Hispanic kids, who saw him stem from humble roots in the Dominican Republic to dominate the game.

Castro said of their moment in August 2021: “It was very special, because it was mostly unexpected. I had a lot of mixed feelings. I was very nervous, I’m going to meet him, but it was special. It was something I will never forget.”

For all his success, and the millions of dollars he’s made, the story of Albert Pujols is still downright Dickinian.

He was mostly raised by his grandmother and a large group of aunts and uncles in Santo Domingo, the capital located on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. And when he talks about his humble roots, Pujols often remembers using a makeshift glove made from a milk crate and whatever fruit is available to play the game he’s grown to love.

Pujols immigrated with his family to New York in 1996, then moved to the Kansas suburb of Independence, where his Fort Osage high school coach, Dave Fry, once called him “a gift from the baseball gods.”

Nothing he did over the next two decades could convince anyone otherwise.

Pujols played briefly at Maple Woods Community College before being drafted by St. Louis – to the constant chagrin of Royals fans. They still lament the fact that the 11-time All-Star, who grew up in the shadow of Kauffman Stadium, would win two world championships and play most of his career with the Cardinals across the states.

Along the way, Pujols showed Latin players from the most humble of backgrounds that they could be something.

“Bojoles is someone who is not just me but my entire country, we admire him very much. We respect him,” said 23-year-old O’Neill Cruz, a 23-year-old policeman who grew up on the coast from Santo Domingo in the small town of Nizao. Strongly.” “The thing I like most about Pujols is that the goals he sets, and he achieves. As a young footballer, this speaks to me, because it shows me that I can do it.”

To the surprise of many, Pujols still does.

After three National League players, six Silver Sluggers, and two Golden Gloves, it looked as if it was finally time to catch 42-year-old Pujol. His decade playing with the Los Angeles Angels was a pretty disappointing symbol of his superlative 12 years in St. Louis, and many believe his spell with the Dodgers culminated in a trip to the NL Championship Series last year. A convenient way to retire.

Pujols had other ideas. He wanted to return to St. Louis, where he remained beloved by fans, and reunited with longtime bowler Adam Wainwright and hunter Yadier Molina for one last round.

And here they are: No. 1 at NL Central as they march through the final month of the regular season.

Pujols played a big role in it too. He’s been hitting .266 with 16 home blocks and 43 RBI entering Thursday’s game against Washington, leaving five of his teammates shy of joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club.

“I’m glad he’s healthy and doing what he knows he can do,” Molina said, while an MLB team debated on television about the Cardinals, “Is Albert Pujols the best baseball player of the century?”

“It’s going to be special for everyone here at the club,” Molina said of the 700 teachers. “I hope he can do that.”

Regardless of whether he does or not, Pujols insists this will be his last season. However, rather than take a triumphant run around the league, getting feted everywhere he plays, Pujols took a hands-on approach to every night in the park.

However, there are moments when I realize the scale of it all. One of them came last week, when Pujols was called to discus the punch against longtime rival Chicago Cubs, and sped out of the dugout into Busch Stadium.

“I’ve been energized by these fans for the 12 years of my career, including the playoffs, but on Friday, I felt something different,” Pujols admitted two days later. “I don’t know what it was, but I felt it. I shared it with my family, I shared it with my kids who were here, and I said, ‘Wow, that was different.'”

It was a different moment for a lot of people on the field that night.

Then again, Pujols was always a different player.

“There are times when you step back from being shut out in the game and become a fan for a minute, and try it like everyone else would, and that was one of them,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. “You take a moment and take it all in because what he’s doing is absolutely incredible.”

AP sports writer Steve Megarge and AP freelance writers Jason Young and Mark Schmitzer contributed.

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