Cards fans salute Angels star Pujols in return to St. Louis

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Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols (5) is greeted by a standing ovation before his first at-bat during the first inning a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Friday, June 21, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

ST. Louis (AP) — The cheers for Albert Pujols lasted much longer than his at-bat.

It had been almost eight years in the making, but Albert Pujols returned to the Busch Stadium on Friday night and was greeted by a raucous standing ovation that carried on for over a minute.

Pujols spent the first 11 years of his All-Star career with the Cardinals before signing with the Los Angeles Angels after the 2011 season. Due to inconsistent interleague scheduling, this was the first time the Angels have visited St. Louis since Pujols left.

During the ovation, Pujols and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina — whom he refers to as his little brother — embraced in the first inning. Before stepping in, Pujols tipped his helmet, sending the crowd noise to another level.

The cheers faded as quickly as the at-bat, in which Pujols flied out to deep center field on Michael Wacha’s first pitch. Wacha was drafted by the Cardinals as compensation for Pujols signing a $254 million, 10-year contract with the Angels as a free agent.

The 39-year-old Pujols was reflective as he prepared to take the field for the first time since celebrating the 2011 World Series championship after helping St. Louis defeat the Texas Rangers in seven games.

“The 11 years, the success I had here, nine playoffs, two World Series, best fans in baseball,” Pujols said. “I use the term that I came here as a little boy and I left as a really strong and big man, a grown man.”

Pujols will forever have a special place in the history-rich lore of the Cardinals.

He came out of nowhere, drafted in the 13th round in 1999, to become the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year. Pujols hit .328 with 455 doubles, 445 home runs and 1,329 RBI in 1705 games with the Cardinals.

Pujols was a three-time National League MVP, nine-time All-Star, a six-time Silver Slugger and a two-time Gold Glove winner. Pujols led the Cardinals to championships in 2006 and 2011 and to another World Series appearance in 2004.

“What Albert did for the city, he deserves it,” Molina said of the ovation.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt remembered his early days around Pujols as a minor league instructor during spring training in 2008.

“He’d just be stalking the opposing pitcher (in the dugout),” Shildt said. “I’d sit right beside him and you’d just feel like this radiation coming off of him coming into the competition and he’s picking up something and that never wavered and that’s a characteristic that few have.”

Pujols credited former Cardinals greats like Lou Brock, who taught him to properly run the bases, and former teammates such as Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina, Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Placido Polanco, Larry Walker, Mike Matheny and Molina for helping him grow as a player and as a person.

“You play this game for 20 years or whatever, and hopefully you leave longer than what you play and that’s why you build great relationships because that is more important to me than anything that I have accomplished,” Pujols said.

Pujols still maintains a home in St. Louis and his foundation, designed to help children with special needs, is still active in the community.

He didn’t waver in his feelings about the city.

“What makes it special is just the support day in and day out,” Pujols said. “It didn’t matter if we were playing good or bad, I felt like if you played the game the right way and hustle, they just love their players. Not only in baseball, we saw that in football and in hockey with the Blues winning, it’s just a great city to play sports in.”

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