Albert Pujols shows us the magic of sticking around


By the time Albert Pujols hit his historic home run Sunday in Pittsburgh, I was on Interstate 79 heading south toward home.

I missed tattooing a 2-0 pitch in the top of the ninth inning in the distance, toward the horizon and the intensely yellow Roberto Clemente Bridge. I missed the ball landing somewhere beyond the center right and sparking a scuffle between three grown men who dove headfirst into the front row for the remembrance. I missed the proud caravan of St. Louis Cardinals fans, my people, going crazy and turning PNC Park into their Steel City vacation rental.

Their cries of “Albert!” Albert! Albert!” energized on an otherwise dreary Sunday, all because they had the privilege of witnessing something special. That ball Pujols hammered led to the starting runs in the Cardinals comeback victory; more important again, it was his 697th home run, the fourth in Major League Baseball history.

And where was I during this unforgettable moment that these fans will tell their children and grandchildren until their last day? Back in my car thinking how on my deathbed I’m going recounts the September afternoon when I missed what should have been arguably the greatest highlight of my life as a baseball fan.

Oh, I was at that game. I specifically chose this weekend, and this city, with the intention of seeing Albert one last time. This summer, I’ve been looking through so many vacation photos of my friends on Instagram. Some of them went to Capri, Italy; Marrakech, Morocco; and Porto, Portugal.

This should have been my dream vacation. Everything lined up perfectly. Pujols entered Sunday tied with Alex Rodriguez at 696 homers. Instead of missing out on the final game of the road trip, he was in the lineup — playing first base, just like the good old days. He was even at the cleaning stick. Anything could happen, and I would be there, in person, to see it for myself.

Albert Pujols defied age – and the specter of Willie Mays at dusk

Me, at ten years old, I would have been so proud, thinking that I turned out to be the coolest adult ever. But by round seven, I, 42, kept wondering how the traffic could be on the 4 1/2 hour drive to Washington.

It’s so hard to be both a mature adult and a sports fan. The two roles just don’t work together.

Who has the stamina to stay up until 2:50 a.m. and watch one of the greatest US Open games of all time? Sorry, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, but do you ever mind finishing your thrilling five-hour, five-set fight? We have work in the morning.

And who among us can really shame the Miami Heat fans who left Game 6 early? Yes, of course, it was 2013 NBA Finals and Ray Allen was about to hit that unforgettable three-pointer, the stuff of legend, but have you have you ever navigated traffic jams in downtown miami? You would have left after the national anthem.

That’s why, in retrospect, I side with my buddy Wesley’s dad. Wes Buchek and I have been friends for nearly three decades, sharing our love for St. Louis sports. The Bucheks, however, were a little more diehard, attending more games at Busch Stadium than I have ever done. That is, of course, until the sixth or seventh inning.

When the Buchek boys were little, their dad offered them tickets to tons of weekday games, but they always had to leave their seats early. Their father needed rest; he did a good honest job and had to punch the clock early in the morning, for crying out loud. And Wes – poor pal – remembers a sad car ride home, listening to KMOX radio when Bernard Gilkey hit a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth to snap the Montreal Expos’ seven-game winning streak.

Even today, life continues to prevent Wes from catching some of the Cardinals’ magical moments. He and his wife, Amanda Verbeck, having not had a getaway in a while, hit the boondocks this weekend. They had no WiFi so couldn’t watch Albert slam #696. But while Wes was a responsible husband, I was going to be the big kid cheering on the oldest kid in the park.

Pujols challenges what “the end” should look like. He scripted a Hall of Fame career during his first 11 years in St. Louis. He was a once-in-a-generation talent, but he left in Los Angeles Angels obscurity. (Sigh, if only this town would stop poaching our finest treasures.)

But luckily this season Albert has returned to Baseball Heaven and he is once again carrying the birds at bat. He has returned to retire as a cardinal, but he is no one’s ornament. He’s not just the aging baseball player who smiles and waves as he receives gifts opposing teams and the polite applause of rival supporters. Instead, he’s chasing 700 home runs with a powerful swing that’s still one of baseball’s most feared.

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At the Home Run Derby, Albert pulled off an unlikely upset against the hard-hitting Kyle Schwarber in the first round. Last month, he smashed two home runs in Phoenix, passing Stan Musial for second all-time in total bases. And recently, in his last at bat against the Chicago Cubs, he won the game with a two-run bomb in the eighth.

And he does it looking like someone tio with that belly sticking out of her belt and a hairline that goes, goes, is gone. That’s what makes his 22nd and final season so special. He’s one of us, an adult in real life.

Albert and I are the same age. So I get why that six-pack abs is just a barrel of lard. And yet, he makes me love baseball like I did when I was a kid. Every night I refresh Twitter – the modern equivalent of the morning after box score – to see if my baldness, swelling Tio Alberto did it again.

That’s why I drove all the way to Pittsburgh, to lounge on the upper deck and wait for the story. Then adulthood started tapping on my shoulder, asking important questions like whether gas prices are better in West Virginia or Maryland.

The Cardinals were down 1-0 and treated this game against the last-place Pirates as if it were required reading. They looked lifeless, and Albert was 0 for 3. After he hit Lars Nootbaar was caught stealing and Tyler O’Neill finished seventh, I headed for the exits, thinking it was safe to start the long journey back.

As I walked across the Seventh Street Bridge and heard the fireworks from a Pirates solo home run, I felt even more vindicated. Yet I kept hearing the protestations of my 10-year-old self: Stay! Albert still has one at bat!

I was less than an hour into my trip and still trying to get rid of that nagging feeling when I checked the final score. Cardinals, 4-3. Pujols HR. I wanted to bang my head against the steering wheel.

I called Wes for comfort. It was as if he was laughing for a minute straight. He put me on speakerphone, and when I shared what might be the worst decision of my athletic life, he said Amanda buried her head in the pillow.

I went to Pittsburgh to see my favorite baseball player, my peer, make history. His last season has already been a lesson in unexpected endings. On Sunday, he gave me one final reminder: if you don’t stick around until the end, you never know what you might miss.

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