Albert Pujols is making Cardinals fans and his teammates very happy in the summer of love. He’s a leader in the clubhouse, a sage for young players, and an increasingly intimidating presence in the lineup. His at-bats are now must-see events.

Busch Stadium is alive again. People who soured on the Cardinals are now jumping out of their chairs in a state of unrestrained joy to shout his name. As for those watching the Great Pujols on their televisions or tablets or smartphones, His home runs are landing in every home where Cardinal fans live or congregate. It is a precious gift from Albert to you.

And no one wants this to end.

Now that the Pujols-loving hearts are warm, just like the old days, the topic is heating up: should Albert Pujols return to the Cardinals in 2023 for one more year?

Can we have an encore?

The mang isn’t embarrassing himself. Pujols isn’t the old, sad, worn-down and out-of-shape Elvis. Pujols is performing like the 1968 Elvis – the one that made a stunningly successful comeback on a nationally televised NBC special. Pujols has 3,347 hits during his MLB career and is trying to play as many as he can before it’s time to leave the stage. And that day is coming … too soon … but it is coming.

The Cardinals are rolling, the good times are rolling at Busch Stadium, and the happiest person in the middle of this is the person who started all of this by coming home to restart his St. Louis career.

The best fans in baseball are more fired up than they’ve been in years. By reanimating himself, Pujols has reinvigorated a fan base that has spent too much time grousing about Bill DeWitt’s payroll, or the perceived front-office failures, and the “boring” Cardinals who are content to coast for a wild-card spot instead of going for another World Series championship.

Listening to all of this, sometimes I think the Cardinals have become the Pittsburgh Pirates or something – before I go to Baseball Reference to see how much the Cardinals have won – a tremendous amount – during the DeWitt Era. Heck, even when the Cardinals signed Pujols to a one-year deal for 2022, some accused them of exploiting Pujols to make money off an aging but faded star.

Maybe this is Albert’s best present to the fans of St. Louis: he’s made them laugh and smile and enjoy watching this team play. They’ve rallied around Pujols, and he’s tapped into their energy and emotion. It’s a splendid experience. Pujols has taken himself back in time, to hit baseballs as he did as a younger man. And he’s taken the fans back to those days that remind us of just how special this franchise is. How special this relationship is. This bond between the Cardinals and their fans has been strengthened by Pujols in 2022.

Jul 30, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols (5) stands in the dugout during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

This has been so extraordinary and unique, we’re up for another Pujols tour. But here’s the thing: this really is extraordinary and unique, but that’s a big part of the reason why it’s so risky to try and recreate it again. It is probably best to let this sweet summer float into its own space as a singular experience and memory that will endure without complications. This has been just about perfect, and trying to top an almost-perfect Pujols summer could lead to sadness and frustration and a not-so-happy ending.

If Pujols comes back at age 43, he’d be a year older. He may not be in tip-top condition. He’d be more vulnerable to injury. The Cardinals have young position players on the way, and they’ll have to give playing time to top prospect Jordan Walker, and the current rookies such as Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez. The front office may have ideas about signing or acquiring a free agent, someone that can bat leadoff in 2023. The roster should be more crowded, potentially, next season.

All of the teams that the Cardinals have played on the road this season are having ceremonies to honor Pujols and his retiring buddy Yadier Molina. Commissioner Rob Manfred honored Pujols by naming him to the National League All-Star team. The final month of the season will be a delirious celebration of Pujols, and we will savor every moment, just as we have been all season.

So once you say goodbye, and the farewell is marked by so many affectionate and respectful ceremonies and the spontaneous showering of applause and appreciation, it would be awfully hard to walk all of that back.

Sure it can be done, and it’s not as if I’d respond by writing a negative column criticizing Pujols for changing his mind and playing the “real” final season as a Cardinal. But this summer has been so lovely, I’d rather see Pujols walk off with his talent, power, and presence intact.

Perhaps I am scarred by seeing a childhood idol, quarterback John Unitas, limping around as a sad figure – hobbled and unable to summon any of his past greatness during a final season that he never should have played. Johnny U did what so many other iconic athletes had done before him: stay too long, and become a figure of pity. Baltimore Colts fans still loved him the same, but it was painfully difficult to watch him stagger around on bad legs in that final year with the San Diego Chargers.

Pujols doesn’t strike me as that kind of competitor. His pride is immense, and he knows that he’s had an exemplary career. He started in St. Louis, and he will finish in St. Louis, and the circle will be complete.

If Pujols wants to go for career home run No. 700, and can’t get there until next season, it’s certainly an enticing lure. As he would want to hit that milestone home run as a Cardinal, preferably at Busch Stadium. But what if the chase to 700 turns into a prolonged, problematic march that becomes uncomfortable and unpleasant? What if the 43-year-old Pujols is blocking the path of a next-generation Cardinals or two?

It hasn’t always been easy for rookie manager Oli Marmol to navigate this season, weighing sentimental factors and fan interest with his respect for Pujols and the commitment to doing what’s best for the team. Fortunately for Marmol – and for Pujols, and for the Cardinals and their fans – Albert has emerged as a truly valuable and essential piece in the lineup.

Since July 1 Pujols has batted .333 with a .667 slugging percentage and 1.048 OPS – bashing six homers and five doubles in only 69 at-bats. When Pujols is hitting like it’s 2001, the decision to play – or not play – him isn’t agonizing. Crank him up against left-handed pitchers, spot him against certain right-handers, and let Pujols be Pujols.

But would it be this way in 2023?

Is that realistic?

Remember: Pujols struggled in May and June of this season, batting .174 with an anemic .279 slugging percentage and OPS – and only two home runs in 103 plate appearances. There were unkind whispers. (He’s done.) And thoughts about what would be best. (The Cardinals won’t release him but perhaps he should just make it easy by retiring.) No one should feel bad for thinking about these things … but it was an uncomfortable time.

If anything, we would expect more of that in 2023. Because not even the Great Pujols can continue to defy age. I have to believe that he gets that. Understands it. And for Pujols to get to this point – where he’s a feared hitter again – he put himself through extra work … rigorous, hardcore and maniaca; work … just to raise his game. He’s indicated, in so many words, that he’s not up for this again. He seems to know his limitations.

Pujols knows best. And that’s why he’s downplayed any media-driven speculation about a potential return in 2023. He’s entitled to have a change of heart. Selfishly, I can say this: it would be a kick to see him swat No. 700 in a classic Cardinal uniform. But Pujols is also entitled to choose his own exit from the stage.

“Where I’ll be in 2023 is here, watching some of these guys play from the stands,” Pujols said after hitting two home runs and delivering four RBI’s in Sunday’s win over the Brewers. “I really don’t think about (coming back.) This is it for me. I’m going to take a little break.”

When you can go out on top – leaving the baseball fans of St. Louis eternally grateful – then there’s no reason to reach for more, and risk a letdown. Pujols does not owe the Cardinals or their fans a thing. He came home. He’s been a marvel. He’s done more than expected. It is impossible to love Pujols more than the St. Louis fans love him now. We’ll all do this again – but probably not in 2023. In a few years we’ll meet in Cooperstown.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.