Their shouts of “Albert! Albert! Albert!” energized an otherwise dreary Sunday, all because they had the privilege of witnessing something special. That ball Pujols hammered drove in the go-ahead runs in the Cardinals’ comeback win; more importantly, it was his 697th home run, the fourth most in Major League Baseball history.
And where was I during this unforgettable moment that those fans will be telling their kids and grandkids about until their dying day? Back in my car, thinking about how, on my deathbed, I’ll be recounting the September afternoon when I missed what should have been the hands-down greatest highlight in my life as a baseball fan.
Oh, I was at that game. I specifically chose that weekend, and that city, with the intention of seeing Albert one last time. This summer, I’ve scrolled through so many of my friends’ vacation pics on Instagram. Some of them have gone to Capri, Italy; Marrakesh, Morocco; and Porto, Portugal.
It should’ve been the vacation of my dreams. Everything lined up perfectly. Pujols came into Sunday tied with Alex Rodriguez at 696 homers. Instead of sitting out the last game of the road trip, he was in the lineup — playing first base, just like old times. He was even batting cleanup. Anything could happen, and I would be there, in person, to see it for myself.
Albert Pujols has defied age — and the specter of Willie Mays in twilight
Ten-year-old me would’ve been so proud, thinking I turned out to be the coolest grown-up ever. But by the seventh inning, 42-year-old me kept wondering how traffic might be on the 4½-hour drive back 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 U.S. Open matches of all time? Sorry, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, but do you mind wrapping up your thrilling, five-set, five-hour smackdown already? We’ve got work in the morning.
And who among us can truly shame those Miami Heat fans who left Game 6 early? Yeah, sure, it was the 2013 NBA Finals and Ray Allen was about to hit that unforgettable three-pointer, the stuff of legend, but have you ever navigated downtown Miami gridlock? You would’ve 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 almost three decades, sharing our love for St. Louis sports. The Bucheks, however, were a bit more die-hard, attending more games at Busch Stadium than I ever did. That is, of course, until the sixth or seventh innings.
When the Buchek boys were little, their dad got them tickets to tons of weeknight games, but they always had to leave their seats early. Their dad needed rest; he worked a good, honest job and had to punch the clock in the early a.m., for crying out loud. And Wes — poor buddy — remembers one sad car ride back 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 keeps getting in the way of Wes catching some of the Cardinals’ magical moments. He and his wife, Amanda Verbeck, having not had a getaway in a while, went off into the boondocks over the weekend. They didn’t have WiFi and therefore missed out on watching Albert slam No. 696. But while Wes was being a responsible husband, I was going to be the big kid cheering on the oldest kid in the park.
Pujols is defying 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 for the obscurity of the Los Angeles Angels. (Sigh, if only that city would stop poaching our finest treasures.)
But thankfully, this season Albert returned to Baseball Heaven, and he’s once again wearing the birds on the bat. He came back to retire as a Cardinal, but he’s nobody’s ornament. He’s not just the aging ballplayer who smiles and waves as he receives gifts from opposing teams and polite applause from rival fans. Instead, he’s pursuing 700 home runs with a mighty swing that’s still one of the most feared in baseball.
The best comp for Aaron Judge’s historic season? Babe Ruth.
At the Home Run Derby, Albert pulled off an improbable upset of hard-hitting Kyle Schwarber in the opening round. Last month, he crushed two homers 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 pinch-hit two-run bomb in the eighth.
And he’s doing this while looking like somebody’s tío with that belly protruding over his belt and a hairline that’s going, going, gone. That’s what makes his 22nd and final season so special. He’s one of us — a real-life adult.
Albert and I, we’re the same age. So I understand why that six-pack of abs is now just a cask of lard. And yet, he’s got me loving baseball like I did when I was a child. Every night I’m refreshing Twitter — the modern-day equivalent of the next morning’s box score — to see if my balding, bulging Tío Alberto has done it again.
That’s why I drove to Pittsburgh, to lounge in the upper deck and wait on history. Then, adulthood started tapping on my shoulder, asking important questions such as whether the gas prices are better in West Virginia or Maryland.
The Cardinals were down 1-0 and treating this game against the last-place Pirates as though it was required reading. They looked lifeless, and Albert was 0 for 3. After he struck out, Lars Nootbaar was caught stealing and Tyler O’Neill ended the seventh, I headed for the exits, thinking it was safe to start the long drive home.
As I walked the Seventh Street Bridge and heard the fireworks from a Pirates solo home run, I felt even more justified. Still, I kept hearing the protests of my 10-year-old self: Stay! Albert still has one more at-bat!
I was less than an hour into my trip and still trying to shake that nagging feeling when I checked the final score. Cardinals, 4-3. Pujols HR. I wanted to slam my head against the steering wheel.
I called Wes for comfort. It felt as though he laughed for a minute straight. He had me on speakerphone, and when I shared what might be the worst decision in my sports life, he said Amanda buried her head in the pillow.
I went to Pittsburgh to see my favorite ballplayer, my peer, accomplish history. His final season has already been a lesson in unexpected endings. Sunday, he gave me one final reminder: If you don’t stick around until the end, you never know what you might miss.