We got you a new jersey.”
Those were the words of my Dad sometime during the winter of 2001. I was seven years old and my parents had just got home from a vacation. At the time, I was more interested in collecting Pokemon cards than jerseys, but it was still a cool consolation prize.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Albert Pujols,” he replied.
Now, at the time I had no idea who Albert Pujols was. My favorite baseball player was Chipper Jones, which had turned into the seven-year-old equivalent of being an Atlanta Braves fan. My Dad explained to me the story of Pujols breaking onto the National League scene on his way to winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and finishing fourth in MVP voting at the ripe old age of 21.
Then, he told me the two of us would be going to see Albert play the next summer — at Turner Field in Atlanta.
I had been to Major League Baseball games before that, but I will never forget the first time I saw Albert Pujols patrolling left field. The way he moved, the way he stepped to the plate, the confidence that he seemed to emit at just 22, I was hooked.
Entering Friday night, Albert Pujols is one hit away from becoming the 32nd member of the 3,000 hit club. I am happy for him, but I am sad at the same time.
I will never forget seeing Pujols hit a home run that barely got higher than the wall against the Royals at Kaufman Stadium. To this day, it is still the hardest I’ve ever seen a human being hit a ball with a club.
I will never forget watching Pujols lead the 2006 Cardinals to a world championship after winning only 86 games during the regular season. That came after two heartbreaking seasons in which the Cardinals were one of (if not the) best teams in baseball the entire season, but were swept in the 2004 World Series by the Red Sox then lost in the 2005 NLCS to the Houston Astros.
I will never forget waking up the morning after Pujols essentially ended Brad Lidge’s career in that 2005 NLCS. “Albert did it again,” my Dad told me.
I will never forget the first time I saw him step to the plate at Busch Stadium in the summer of 2009 during a trip my Dad took me on for my 15th birthday. Naturally, he hit a home run.
I will never forget watching the way he could carry the Cardinals during stretches. I have never seen one baseball player put an offense on his back the way Pujols could during those mid-2000s seasons.
I will never forget his three home run game in the 2011 World Series. I will never forget watching him celebrate in the St. Louis night after David Freese’s walk-off home run in game six assured we would see the Redbirds again the following night.
I will never forget the emotion of watching the final outs of game seven and Pujols’ second world title with my Dad, the same person who had started me on this wild ride with one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball history nearly 10 years previous.
I will never forget the emotions when I found out he was leaving the Cardinals to become a member of the Los Angeles Angels. I was sitting in chemistry class as a senior in high school and thought I was going to cry. It was the only time an Iowa fan would apologize to me, which my teacher did when he realized how crushed I was by the news.
I am not sure I will ever love another athlete as much as I did Albert Pujols before the winter of 2011. Despite being a left-handed hitter, I copied his batting stance. I wore his No. 5. I played first base, the defensive spot where he played his peak years.
I have not watched Albert Pujols hit since he left the Birds on the Bat. Honestly, I am not sure that I ever will. That is why it makes me sad. Despite all the happy memories he gave me, it will never be the same.
He should be reaching this hallowed milestone as a member of the Cardinals.
I cannot image the fanfare that would accompany this moment if it were happening in St. Louis. Instead, he will be doing it as a member of the Angels, playing second-fiddle to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
I am so happy for Albert Pujols. I am so happy for the ride he took Cardinal fans on during his 10-years with the franchise. I will probably never love baseball as much as I did during that stretch of time. I will never forget that first jersey.
But I will still be sad at the same time.