ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols is back in St. Louis, nearly eight years after celebrating a World Series crown in the city that made him famous.
The Hall of Fame-bound slugger has accomplished a lot during his time with the Los Angeles Angels, with whom he signed after 11 stellar seasons with the Cardinals. He has had three 30-homer seasons. He has driven in 100 or more runs four times. He has reached historic career milestones -- 3,000 hits, 500 and 600 homers, 2,000 RBIs. But he had never been back to Busch Stadium.
That is, until Friday, when Pujols' Angels began their first interleague series in St. Louis since he left. It was a lovefest from the moment he stepped onto the field until the moment he left the game.
"Just pretty amazing," Pujols said. "That'll show you why they are the best fans in baseball. I'm just glad to be able to play here for 11 years, have the great memories."
In his first at-bat, the ovation lasted about 1 minute, 20 seconds, and Pujols tipped his helmet to the crowd, pointed to the Cardinals' dugout and hugged catcher Yadier Molina, one of his best friends and one of two remaining teammates from his St. Louis days.
"I was pretty close from dropping a couple tears there, I think, especially when I hugged Yadi," Pujols said. "We had that little moment to ourselves right there."
The ovation might have lasted even longer if Michael Wacha hadn't then thrown his first pitch to Pujols. The at-bat ended with Pujols flying out to center field, a blast that brought the crowd to its feet, only to end in a mass sigh when the ball settled into the glove of Harrison Bader.
Pujols received a standing ovation as he strode to the plate in all three of his plate appearances. During his second trip, the crowd erupted in a chant of "Albert! Albert!" On his third at-bat, the 39-year-old got a standing ovation when he came to the plate and after he legged out an infield single.
With Pujols on second base in the seventh representing the tying run, Angels manager Brad Ausmus removed him for a pinch runner. The move was made for strategic reasons, but it gave the Busch Stadium faithful, many of whom wore replicas of Pujols' old No. 5 Cardinals jersey, one final chance to shower him with adoration.
"Not at all [surprised]," Ausmus said. "I expected it. Having played here many times, I've seen how Cardinal fans react to even visiting players. I fully expected that to happen."
The only bad part for Pujols was the final result: St. Louis won 5-1, before an announced crowd of 48,423 -- the second-largest crowd in the history of Busch Stadium.
Not only was it his first game back at the scene of his old glories as a player, but Pujols said before the game that he hadn't been back to the park at all since he and the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers 6-2 to clinch the 2011 World Series title.
"I drove by it once," Pujols said. "Because I had an event [nearby]."
Players change teams and revisit old stomping grounds every season, but this one is special, both because of Pujols' status as one of the greatest Cardinals ever and because of the special connection to the city he has maintained to this day. Pujols' foundation still operates in St. Louis, and he still owns a house in the city's suburbs.
"It hasn't hit me yet," Pujols said before the game. "I'm pretty sure when I take the field ... it will be [special]. I'm not really an emotional guy, but it's probably going to get to me. It's getting to me now."
Thunderstorms passed through St. Louis on Friday, canceling batting practice, but as the Busch Stadium grounds crew rolled up the tarp and began preparing the rain-soaked field, early-arriving fans crowded along the rail next to the Angels' side of the field, hoping to catch a glimpse of Pujols.
Meanwhile, inside the ballpark, Pujols exchanged hugs and handshakes with numerous familiar faces from the old days. If anyone was still raw about the fact that Pujols left the club for a 10-year, $240 million contract, you would never guess it by the scene inside the ballpark. In fact, Pujols said that in all the years since he changed teams, he has never encountered anyone who has expressed resentment over his decision.
"The reality is here," Pujols said of the long-awaited return. "It's just amazing. Started my career here, 11 years, the success that I had here, nine playoffs, two World Series, the best fans in baseball. I use the [saying] that I came here as little boy and I left as a really strong and grown man."
The ovation during his first at-bat was expected, as he's the leader in batting average, homers and extra-base hits at the current Busch Stadium, the third venue in St. Louis to bear that name. Though it has been eight years since he toiled for the Redbirds, Pujols ranks second in the franchise's history in homers (445), RBIs (1,329) and extra-base hits (915).
Yet despite the Cooperstown-worthy numbers, the nine trips to the postseason and the two World Series crowns, Pujols said it still comes back to the friendships he has built over the years. That's particularly true of the two remaining Cardinals players from his St. Louis days, pitcher Adam Wainwright and Molina, whom Pujols has many times referred to as his little brother.
"I think the best things you build in this game is the relationships," Pujols said. "Nobody can take that away from you. And you play this game for 20 years or whatever -- hopefully you live longer than what you play.
"That's why you build these great relationships. That is why it's more important to me than what I have accomplished."
If anyone thought Pujols might have damaged those relationships with his long-past decision to sign with the Angels, they were proved wrong Friday night.
"This is an incredible moment for me tonight, and it's something I'm gonna put it right up there with the accomplishment of winning the World Series twice here," Pujols said. "Because this was a pretty special night, not just for me. For my wife, my five beautiful kids to have part of that, and all my friends too. It's very special."