What were you doing on Oct. 28, 2011? Unless you're very young, you were probably watching Albert Pujols' last game in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform. I know this because you're a baseball fan (or you wouldn't be reading this) and because that was Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. I mean, what kind of fan are you if you're not watching Game 7 of the World Series?
Well, the Redbirds beat the Texas Rangers 6-2 that night at what Baseball-Reference.com calls "Busch Stadium III" because St. Louis keeps giving their stadiums the same name. What if the Cincinnati Reds were playing at Crosley Field III? Or the Pirates at Forbes Field III? Come to think of it, that's a pretty good idea. Anyway, the win capped off the Cardinals' 11th (and, at the moment, last) World Series crown, second only to the Yankees among MLB franchises.
Pujols struck out against Texas' Mike Adams in his last plate appearance that night. He has not played at any of the Busch Stadiums since then. On Friday, that will change -- 2,793 days (about 7.6 years) have passed, but finally, Pujols will make his grand return to the Gateway City. So much -- so much -- has changed, not the least of which is Pujols himself, at least on the field.
There's a lot to be written about this weekend (and I'll be down there to write it) and of course Stan Musial's name will come up time and again. If Stan was the man for the Cardinals' franchise, Pujols was the only one to have ever come close to joining Musial on his perch. As we know now, it wouldn't have happened, as age and injuries began to weigh down Pujols' performance. At the time he left for the Angels, however, it wasn't a slam-dunk argument. With a fantastic finish to his career, Pujols could have made a case as the greatest Cardinal of them all. Maybe, in retrospect, it's better that he didn't try.
As it is, there is plenty of room in Redbird-loving hearts for both players. And, heck, Pujols certainly does not resent Musial's unchallenged status in St. Louis -- he may have been the biggest Musial fan of them all -- and remains in touch with the family to this day. Pujols has never talked about St. Louis in anything but glowing terms, and the family-based foundation he established there has never stopped its work in Missouri, even as it expanded its reach into Southern California. Sure, there was plenty of disappointment in St. Louis when Pujols left, but if you're wondering what his reception will be like on Friday, don't. The love will be so thick you'll need a steak knife to cut through it, and that love will flow in both directions.
While I'm waiting for my anticipatory goosebumps to go down, I started wondering just how unusual Friday's circumstances are in the course of baseball history. Certainly, many great players have changed teams over the eons, indeed most of them have. Many of those players eventually returned to the scene of their former glory. In fact, we see some version of it pretty much every season, with this year's return of Bryce Harper to Washington just the latest example. (Different vibe with that situation, for sure.)
But think of this particular set of circumstances. You had a player who was on an all-time-great track for 11 years with one franchise. During his first 10 big league seasons, all with St. Louis, Pujols put up 77.2 fWAR -- an average of 7.7 per season. (Which happens to be more than the total fWAR of 6.9 he has put up during his time with the Angels.) If you read my Hall of Fame stuff, you probably know I'm pretty big on 10-year WAR as a Cooperstown-worthiness measure. If you are a Hall of Famer for a 10-year span, then you're in, as far as I'm concerned. That bus only moves in one direction -- no matter how long you drag things out after that, it's not going back into the garage. (That's just one Hall path for me -- career value is the other. But I have come to think of them as two different paths to the same place, rather than trying to blend them together. That's just me.) Pujols' peak 77.2 10-year fWAR ranks 15th all time, behind, among others, Musial (83.4, to rank 11th).
In other words, Pujols put himself into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal, then left both the team and the National League, and didn't come back to St. Louis for 7½ years. That is a long time between Busch Stadium at-bats. And because he has been open about declaring the next couple of years to be his last, Pujols probably won't play in St. Louis again. This will be it.
Since Pujols' pinnacle years are frozen in Cardinal-colored amber, let's consider the entire top 30 on the peak 10-year fWAR leaderboard and try to determine if we've ever seen anything like what we're about to see. You can be the judge, and you'll see why I cut the list off at 30. (Well, besides to keep my editor from jumping out of the window.)