Albert Pujols at 3,000

Albert Pujols got his 3,000th hit — and a couple extra — last weekend. That's a big sports story during a slow portion of the baseball calendar, and there have been plenty of articles written about the accomplishment and the career that preceded it. What I'm bringing to this one is a particular perspective: that of a Cardinals fan.

With all due respect to Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith, Pujols was the greatest Cardinal since Stan Musial. During his 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols was Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove winner, a 9-time All-Star, three-time MVP, and two-time World Series champ. He led the National League at various times in runs scored, runs batted in, hits, doubles, home runs, extra-base hits, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. He ranked among the top 10 in MVP voting all 11 seasons, top-5 in 10 of them, and top-2 in a preposterous seven out of 11 seasons.

At that time, Albert led all active players in career batting average (.328), on-base percentage (.420), and slugging percentage (.617). He had a better batting average than Ichiro Suzuki, but walked twice as often and led the majors in extra-base hits three times. He hit for average like a singles specialist, but walked and took extra bases like a power hitter. This was Albert's batting line per 162 games:

600 AB, 123 R, 197 H, 43 2B, 1 3B, 42 HR, 126 RBI, 93 BB, 67 SO, 370 TB

He also had a superior postseason resume, batting .330/.439/.607 with 18 homers in 74 postseason games. When Pujols' contract expired after the 2011 season, everyone knew that someone was going to overpay for the privilege of Pujols' decline years. I hoped it would be St. Louis. The Cards were coming off a World Series victory, and only a season earlier, Pujols had led the NL in runs, RBI, home runs, extra-base hits, and intentional walks. He had a 1.000 OPS and won a Gold Glove. Sure, Albert was about to turn 32, but he was still one of the best players in the world.

Even with an inevitable decline perhaps beginning — in 2011, Pujols had career-lows in batting average (.299; how crazy is that, to go your first 10 seasons without a BA below .312?), OBP (.366), and SLG (.541) — there was every reason to forecast Pujols as a productive player, and there's some intangible value in keeping a legend for his whole career. If the Yankees could do it for Derek Jeter, shouldn't the Cardinals do it for Pujols?

When the Angels signed Pujols to a 10-year, $254 million deal, I was disappointed at losing Albert but also horrified by the length and richness of the contract. I continued to root for Pujols through his slow start in 2012, and sure enough, he rebounded to have a pretty good, if not Pujols-esque, year. It was easy to chalk up his dip in production to switching teams and leagues, perhaps exacerbated by the pressure of his new contract. That would explain the cold April, certainly, and the rest of the season was essentially consistent with his previous play.

His performance dipped further the following season, but part of that could be blamed on injury. He rebounded somewhat in 2014 and '15, but he was a shadow of his dominant former self, the perennial MVP candidate. As time went on, it became clear that the Cardinals had dodged a massive bullet. Pujols plummeted basically the moment the Cardinals let him leave. Some attributed the team's prescience to the same dark magic that seemingly kept them always in the pennant hunt.

Last season, Pujols was probably the worst regular in the majors. He had a .572 OPS, hit into 26 double plays, and played mostly as a DH. He's been a little better this year, and at this writing, he has 3,002 major league hits.

He is the 32nd player to reach 3,000, and only the fourth with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs. Pujols still has a lifetime batting average of .304, and he'll probably reach 2,000 RBI by the end of the season. He ranks 10th all-time in total bases (5,520) and could pass Carl Yastrzemski (5,539) for ninth by the end of the month. He was the best-fielding first baseman of his generation, with five Fielding Bible Awards, and the best hitter not tainted by credible PED accusations.

Pujols' career isn't over, but the most important part of it is. He hit .300 ten times and slugged .650 five times. He scored 100 runs ten times and drove in 100 fourteen times. He had 300 bases twelve times and 350 seven times. He even stole double-digit bases three times, with almost three times as many steals (110) as caught stealing (41).

Pujols is no longer the best player in baseball, or anywhere close to that. His WAR so far this season is either 0.0 (FanGraphs) or 0.1 (Baseball Reference). But last weekend, we had occasion to remember Pujols as he was in St. Louis: a batter so feared he led the majors in IBB four times, a .300 hitter who walked, hit with extraordinary power, ran pretty well, and played the best defense in MLB at his position.

I'm glad the Cardinals let Albert go when they did, but I'm still rooting for him.

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