How an All-Star break turned into a showcase for Albert Pujols' legacy

LOS ANGELES — For a second, it looked like Albert Pujols had actually done it.

With the National League down 3-2 and a runner on first base, the future Hall of Famer launched a fly ball with the kind of helium seen at Monday's Home Run Derby, after receiving a standing ovation from Dodger Stadium. It would have been the dream ending of an All-Star break that has been partially dominated by Pujols tributes, interviews and mentions.

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But it wasn't. It was a 333-foot, pinch-hit flyout to Andrew Benintendi, and there would be no sticking around for Pujols for even another inning.

Pujols was done, after fielding dozens of questions, hitting 35 homers in the Home Run Derby and maybe four or five Special Moments™ over the course of two days. After the AL held the NL scoreless for the rest of the game to win 3-2, all that was left were memories for the players who got one last chance to play alongside the St. Louis Cardinals slugger, or at least be near him.

"We got to talk, get a few [pieces of] advice and swing tips," starting catcher Willson Contreras said after the game. "I wish he could play forever, but that's impossible. One thing I know for sure is that those kinds of personalities, you want them to hang out around baseball because they're going to help a lot of young players and help the game grow."

That sentiment was an echo of countless Latin American players and former teammates Monday and Tuesday.

"I've watched him since I was a kid growing up. He's very special. He was then and he is now," Vladimir Guerrero Jr. said through an interpreter. "It's like a father-son relationship. Every time we have a chance, his advice is unbelievable, so I try to take everything that I can from him."

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 18:  Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts to advancing to the next round during the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium on Monday, July 18, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Albert Pujols went 0-for-1 in the All-Star Game, but was still the star of the All-Star Game. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

"Being able to share this experience with Albert Pujols," Luis Castillo said through an interpreter when asked for his favorite All-Star memory. "He's an All-Star, an All-Star for all of us in the Latino community. The way he inspires us, the way he's shown us how to play the game. We're always going to have that."

"I'm giving him a lot of credit," Mike Trout said. "He's been there since Day 1 and when I got to the big leagues, it's stuff that he taught me, the routine, how to become a professional, nothing but the best."

Words like those, and the cheers of Dodger Stadium any time the spotlight shined on Pujols, were more than enough to explain why MLB would add a rule allowing the commissioner to place aging legends on the All-Star rosters (Miguel Cabrera, who plans to continue playing after this year, got the same honor on the AL side).

No memory may last longer than one timeout during the Derby, when just about every All-Star on the field mobbed Pujols when the man might have just wanted a drink of water.

The experience mattered for those players, and it mattered for Pujols.

"I was pretty emotional," Pujols said on Tuesday. "I tried to hide it, because I was still an athlete needing to go out there and compete, but it's probably going to be one of the top moments of my career."

Whether there will be any more top moments is up to Pujols, and the rest of the Cardinals, whom he joined last offseason for one last ride. He had a slow first half, hitting .215/.301/.376 with six home runs while playing mostly as a designated hitter, but has promised a better second half.

Pujols is 11 home runs away from catching Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time home run list and 15 home runs away from joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club. He has already passed Willie Mays for third on the total bases list, and needs 36 to catch Stan Musial (6,134). He is 86 hits away from Carl Yastrzemski for eighth on this hits leaderboard.

Some of those milestones matter more than others, and none are probably more compelling than a potential deep playoff run for the 50-44 Cardinals, who are a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the NL Central.