On April 9, 2001, Albert Pujols appeared in his first game at Busch Stadium. He was a sensation right off the bat. Here is our original coverage.
A year ago, life was a little different for Albert Pujols. He was in his first season of professional baseball at Class A Peoria. In his home opener, Pujols went hitless in three at-bats against the Beloit Snappers in front of 1,620 fans at Vonachen Stadium. He was a line in a bush-league box score. You needed a magnifying glass to find his name.
Now, let's fast-forward to his 2001 home opener ... He's a rookie for the St. Louis Cardinals. He's in the starting lineup vs. the Colorado Rockies, playing third base, in front of a crowd of 48,702 at Busch Stadium. During pregame festivities, he's riding around the ring of the field in a convertible, waving to adoring fans.
In the first inning, Pujols makes a nifty bare-handed pickup to throw out a bunting Todd Walker. In the fifth inning, Pujols goes to his backhand to pluck a hot grounder and fires a strike to retire Ron Gant.
People are also reading…
In the second inning, Colorado starting pitcher Denny Neagle tantalizes the rookie with offspeed pitches, runs the count to 1-2 and tries to sneak a fastball by Pujols. Bad idea. Bang: a 381-foot shot over the wall in left for a two-run homer and a 2-0 Cards lead.
Cardinal Nation goes berserk, screaming for Pujols to emerge from the dugout to acknowledge the sonic-boom applause. It's his first major-league curtain call. And his wife, baby and several brothers -- Pujols left nine tickets -- are in the crowd, joining the cheers.
In the ninth inning, Pujols comes to bat ... Cardinals fans are chanting something ... his name, or at least the first part ... it sounds like, "Pooh." They're chanting "Pooh" in his honor. Three hours in St. Louis, and he already has a nickname?
Rather than deal to Pujols in that ninth-inning at-bat, the Rockies choose to walk him intentionally to load the bases. Two hitters later, the Cardinals win 3-2 when Colorado closer Jose Jimenez air mails a high wild pitch to score Ray Lankford from third.
That's a wrap. His first game in St. Louis. And it's a long way from Peoria, baby. This Pooh is a different kind of bear.
"It's wonderful to see that happen," teammate Bobby Bonilla said. "The kid can really play."
Yeah, but does the kid ever pinch himself when he wakes up, wondering if this is all a sweet, wannabe dream? You aren't supposed to catapult several levels of the minor leagues to land in the big show at age 21.
You aren't supposed to be able to play effective defense at third base, left field and right field in your first week in the majors.
A year after going hitless against the Beloit Snappers, you aren't supposed to smack future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson around, or bat .346 with two homers and three doubles in your first seven games in the bigs.
You aren't supposed to lead the Cardinals in RBIs with 10, making everyone forget the departed Fernando Tatis.
Explain yourself, Albert.
"There are not many players who make it to the big leagues in their second year," Pujols said. "But it's easier to make it. It's much harder to stay. I'm happy that I'm playing here. And I will work very hard, because I want to stay."
For all players -- but especially rookies -- the game is about adjustments. And the pitchers are trying to bait Pujols with a variety of chum. But he isn't giving in.
"They're already changing the way they pitch him," manager Tony La Russa said. "But he has a good chance of adapting. He has a very good strike zone, and he uses the whole field. He's hit fastballs in and out and up and down. He's hit changeups. He's hit breaking balls. And if you do that, you're a player."
You're a player in any town, small or large, Peoria or St. Louis. This is no dream. It's Pujols Power. And it seems to be very real.