Pujols chasing home run history as Cardinals chase playoffs

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — Rodolfo Castro doesn’t remember how old he was when he first met Albert Pujols, or even the exact circumstances, whether it was at a major league game or during one of the big slugger’s charitable trips back to the Dominican Republic.

Castro remembers how he felt, though. It was that childlike sense of wonder that comes when you meet your hero.

“I know I was a young kid,” recalled Castro, now the 23-year-old infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “And I was very timid in approaching him because I knew his stature and knew what he represented.”

It was just last year, after Castro signed with the Pirates and climbed every laborious rung on the minor league ladder, that he learned there was nothing to fear. The Pirates were playing the Dodgers and Castro had drawn a fifth-inning walk.

“Pujols was playing first base,” he said, “and we just had a brief conversation, and he gave me a really warm welcome into the big leagues and just congratulated me. And then that same series, the next day during BP, I was able to run into him and I approached him and just told him what a pleasure it was to meet him and what a great honor it was to be able to play on the same field as him. He was very warm with me and encouraged me to just continue balling out.”

Walk through any big league clubhouse and you’re bound to come across someone with a similar Pujols story — a shared laugh during batting practice, a chance meeting in the offseason, an opportunity to work with him in the community. They are shared freely as the erstwhile star tries to hit the five more homers he needs for 700 in his career.

More often than not, though, the stories have to do with the way Pujols inspired an entire generation of baseball players, and particularly Latino kids, who saw him rise from humble roots in the Dominican Republic to dominate the game.

“It was very special, mostly because it was unexpected,” Castro said of their moment in August 2021. “I had so many mixed emotions. I was so nervous, getting to meet him, but it was special. It was something I’ll never forget.”

For all his success, and the millions of dollars he’s made, the story of Albert Pujols remains downright Dickensian.

He was raised mostly by his grandmother and a large collection of aunts and uncles in Santo Domingo, the capital on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. And when he speaks of his humble roots, Pujols often recalls using a makeshift glove fashioned out of a milk crate and whatever fruit was available to practice the game he grew to love.

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

Nothing he’s done over the next two decades could persuade anyone otherwise.

Pujols played briefly for Maple Woods Community College before he was drafted by St. Louis — much to the everlasting chagrin of Royals fans. They still lament the fact that an 11-time All-Star, who grew up in the shadow of Kauffman Stadium, would win two World Series and play the majority of his career for the cross-state Cardinals.

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

“Pujols is someone that not only I but my entire country, we admire a lot. We respect him deeply,” said 23-year-old Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz, who grew up down the coast from Santo Domingo in the small city of Nizao. “Something that I’ve admired most out of Pujols is that the goals he sets, he achieves them. As a young ballplayer, that speaks measures to me, because it shows me that I’m able to do this.”

To the surprise of many, Pujols is still doing it.

After three National League MVPs, six Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves, it seemed as if time was finally catching up to the 42-year-old Pujols. The decade he spent playing for the Los Angeles Angels was a largely underwhelming coda to the 12 superlative years he spent in St. Louis, and many believed the stint he played with the Dodgers that culminated in a trip to the NL Championship Series last year was a fitting way to head off into retirement.

Pujols had other ideas, though. He wanted to return to St. Louis, where he remained beloved by fans, and reunite with longtime pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina for one last run.

And here they are: first place in the NL Central as they march through the final month of the regular season.

Pujols has played a big part in it, too. He was hitting .266 with 16 homers and 43 RBIs entering Thursday’s game against Washington, leaving him five homers shy of joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club.

“I’m happy he’s healthy and doing what he knows he can do,” Molina said, while on TVs around the Cardinals clubhouse, a panel on MLB Network debated the topic: “Is Albert Pujols the best baseball player of this century?”

“It would be special for every guy here in the clubhouse,” Molina said of the 700 milestone. “I hope he can do it.”

Regardless of whether he does, Pujols insists this will be his final season. Yet rather than doing a victory lap around the league, and getting feted everywhere he plays, Pujols has taken a businesslike approach to every night at the park.

Still, there are moments when the magnitude of it all has caught up to him. One came last week, when Pujols was called upon to pinch hit against the longtime-rival Chicago Cubs, and he stepped out of the dugout to a Busch Stadium roar.

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

It was a moment that felt different for a lot of people in the ballpark that night.

Then again, Pujols has always been a different player.

“There are times when you take a step back from being locked into the game and you get to be a fan for a minute, and experience it the way everybody else does, and that was one of them,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “You take a moment and take it all in because what he’s doing is absolutely incredible.”

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AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee and AP freelance writers Jason Young and Mark Schmetzer contributed.

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