This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.
Soon after though, Pujols and I began to diverge.
In 2005 Barry Bonds missed almost the entire season due to injuries, giving the rest of the league an opportunity to compete for the MVP, and Albert capitalized. Me though, I was living through the disintegration of the relationship I'd moved across the country for. I went to Los Angeles to stay with my sister in hopes that time and distance might fix things, but they didn't. Then two weeks after the last strings holding that together were severed, I picked my dad up at the airport and knew immediately that something was very wrong. Hours later he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Pujols led the Cardinals to a World Series crown in 2006, a year I have a hard time remembering many details from. I spent a lot of time sitting with my dad, some days better than others. He lived for more than two years after the initial diagnosis and operation, three times as long as we were told to expect. He accomplished a great deal in those two years too, refusing to stop going to work, refusing to slacken his commitment to his community, refusing to let anything see him feeling bad for himself. I tried hard not to let anyone see me feeling bad for myself either, but didn't accomplish all that much. Mostly I treaded water.
Pujols kept hammering baseballs, and by the end of 2011, each of us 31 years old, he'd assured himself of a spot in the Hall of Fame someday, with 445 home runs and a .328 batting average, with more extra-base hits than all but two players in MLB history through that age. He and the Cardinals also won another World Series that fall. Albert was a free agent at the conclusion of that season, in line to get one of the largest contracts in sports history. Many expected him to re-sign with St. Louis, cementing his legacy as the city's most beloved athlete since Stan Musial, but instead he signed with the Angels, a ten-year deal worth $254 million.
Pujols' first season in Anaheim was the worst of his career, and he posted his lowest batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total number of home runs and walks. He'd still been a good player, but not the transcendent one he'd been in St. Louis. Things were even worse in 2013. While his former teammates were on their way to winning another National League pennant, Albert missed significant time due to injuries for the first time in his career, and saw his slugging percentage drop another 79 points below the new low he'd established the year before. He's rebounded a bit since then, but never to anything approaching his previous glory.
Meanwhile, the same week Albert played his first game with the Angels, I asked a beautiful woman out on a date. In the five years since then, the two of us moved in together, got engaged, adopted a dog, married, and bought a house. Last month we welcomed a baby girl to the world. They have been the best five years of my life.
While there's a good chance his numbers would have declined in much the same way if he'd re-signed with the Cardinals, it felt like he'd made the wrong decision. If nothing else, Cardinals fans would have had the earlier seasons to fall back on when considering him, whereas in Anaheim he's always felt a bit like a disappointment. After leading baseball in WAR from 2001 through 2011, Pujols tied for 82nd from 2012 through 2016, and while it's still early this season, so far he's been a below average hitter, and hitting is the only thing he's really asked to do at this point.
I've been dwelling on his decline, which isn't fair. This series is about celebrating the best players of my lifetime, and I'm near the very top of that list now. Few players in history have approached Albert Pujols' accomplishments. He posted an OPS better than 1.000 in eight different seasons. Only five players topped that number. He maintained an OPS of 1.050 during the first ten years of his career. The last player with a figure so high during his first ten seasons was Ted Williams. Pujols is the second-best hitter of my lifetime, and he hasn't been just a hitter either: During his prime he was a good base runner and the best defensive first baseman in baseball.
I wish he would have stayed with the Cardinals, just because I prefer that narrative. We can't control anyone else's narrative though. Sometimes we can barely control our own. I hope that when his career ends, our paths converge and run in the same direction again, so that I might wish him well in retirement without dooming myself.