ST. LOUIS -- The Clydesdales weren't the only traditional attraction missing from the Cardinals' rain-delayed home opener Friday afternoon.
For the first time in 11 years, Albert Pujols didn't take his place on the first-base line when fans welcomed the team to their season debut in St. Louis. After backing into a starting role when Bobby Bonilla got injured in 2001, Pujols has started every home opener, playing third in 2001, left field in 2002 and 2003 and first base ever since.
The home opener in St. Louis is a sacred event, a religious rite. The gods of its pantheon, mononymously known as Stan, Red, Whitey, Lou, Gibby, Ozzie and Bruce, descend to the field in red blazers. The pregame ritual has an established form: The Clydesdales lead the procession (weather permitting), the gods stride in and the current players are introduced as they pay homage to the greats in a gesture of pope-like reverence today. (Example: Chris Carpenter doffed his cap as he shook Stan Musial's hand.)
Pujols long professed a love for those saints of Cardinals Nation, saying of Musial: "There is one man that gets that respect [of being called The Man], and that’s Stan Musial. He’s the Man. He’s the Man in St. Louis. " Even as an Angel, he has rejected the nickname "El Hombre," which the Angels tried using in a preseason ad campaign, saying "I feel the same way" about not wanting to equate himself with Musial.
Still, if Stan was the Man, Pujols was a close second. But when Pujols left to sign with the Angels last winter, his deal ensured that, even if he and his former team were to thaw their relationship, he won't be joining those Cardinals legends on opening day for a long time: In addition to a 10-year playing contract, the deal includes a 10-year, personal-services agreement following the playing contract's expiration or Pujols' retirement, whichever is later. If you thought that the ice took a long time to melt in the team's relationships with Keith Hernandez and Ozzie Smith, any possible return of Pujols will be at a glacial pace.
Not that it mattered to Cardinals fans today. After a moment of silence for former Cardinal Bob Forsch, who died Nov. 3., the faithful weren't about to mourn the loss of Pujols. After all, they were celebrating the club's 11th World Series title, so they had plenty to cheer about.
And after extending the contract of fan favorite Yadier Molina, re-signing Rafael Furcal and bringing in Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals lead the National League Central and are scoring runs like they did last year, when they led the league in runs and on-base percentage. To hear the crowd laud World Series hero David Freese as he unloaded from his parade truck, Cardinal fans already have a new object of their affection.
As much as Pujols meant in St. Louis, the name on the front of the jersey still matters more than the one on the back, as unknown reliever Victor Marte, who doesn't even have an MLB profile photo yet, would attest. Heck, Shannon Magrane, "American Idol" daughter of former Cardinal pitcher Joe Magrane (who started on Opening Day from 1988 to 1991) received a louder ovation than most players (including those earning their paychecks in Anaheim) hear on opening day.
The Cardinals, who lost 9-5 to the Chicago Cubs, could've used Pujols this afternoon. But today, Pujols seemed as distant as the memory of him hitting into three double plays on Opening Day last year. Like the Clydesdales, who remain part of the Cardinal opening-day celebration long after Augie Busch sold the team, the Cardinals are bigger than any one tradition. It takes more than rain and a departed icon to dampen a home opener in St. Louis.