Until Albert Pujols crushed a fastball by Andrew Heaney for home run No. 699 of his career in the third inning Friday, the Dodgers felt nothing but affection for their former teammate.
“Tio! We love you and we’ll see you soon, especially on the golf course,” said Justin Turner during a Dodger Stadium video tribute to Pujols before the game.
Until Pujols crushed a slider by Phil Bickford for home run No. 700 in the fourth inning of an 11-0 St. Louis Cardinals victory, the Dodgers were captivated by his unfathomable chase to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in perhaps the most exclusive club in baseball history.
“You are an incredible human being off the field,” gushed Mike Muncy during the same tribute before joining Turner in giving Pujols and Yadier Molina shiny new golf bags in a pregame ceremony.
When Pujols wept while circling the bases with the crowd of 50,041 standing and howling in appreciation, when Pujols high-fived former Dodger Adrian Beltre in the first row after crossing the plate, Dodgers players and manager Dave Roberts were overcome by a crosscurrent of emotions.
“I was very pissed about the execution we had tonight, but you have to sometimes step back and appreciate that it’s not always about you,” Roberts said. “In this particular case, it’s certainly bigger than all of us and for sports, so I guess if we aren’t going to execute pitches, I’m happy it was Albert.”
Heaney, a teammate of Pujols with the Angels from 2015-21, was immediately distraught that the two-strike fastball Pujols swatted into the left-field stands was thigh high over the middle of the plate rather than above the strike zone as it was intended.
“My reaction came when it left my hand,” he said. “I knew that [expletive] was going right down the middle and that’s not good with him, so he got it really good.”
Did he eventually appreciate Pujols’ achievement?
“As I step away, it will be a little cooler for me,” Heaney said. “Right now, it’s a sore spot. I’ll probably appreciate it more in the coming days, but I’m really happy for him. I saw his 3,000th hit, his 600th [home run], saw him do a lot of cool stuff.”
Bickford, who as a Dodgers rookie last season valued Pujols as a mentor, was struck by a wave of conflicting thoughts as Pujols rounded the bases to a standing ovation. He bent down behind the mound, picked up the rosin bag and dropped it, then soaked it all in. What else could he do?
“At first I was upset that I gave up the home run but when the crowd reacted and I saw all the smiles, it was a very special moment for MLB,” he said. “Albert Pujols is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and, yeah, after I got upset over giving up the home run, it was a special moment.”
Bickford flashed back to the second half of last season, when Pujols wore a Dodgers uniform and doled out hugs like candy bars.
“He’s the nicest guy ever,” he said. “He’s a big old teddy bear, someone you have nothing but great things to say about. He’s a very kind person.”
Yet one with a sense of humor. Asked what he’d say to Bickford when they crossed paths Saturday, Pujols laughed and said, “I’ll say, ‘Thank you for the hanging slider.’”
The Dodger close enough to hug Pujols both times he touched home plate was Dodgers catcher Will Smith, who last year said as a boy he’d idolized Pujols, whose career began in 2001 when Smith was 6 years old.
But Smith didn’t hug Pujols after the home runs. Of course he didn’t. He’d called the pitches. He wasn’t happy. Yet, of course, he sort of was happy.
“As a fan as a kid, it’s cool to be in that moment, but as a competitor I wanted to get him out,” Smith said. “I want to beat him, whoever we are facing.
“It was cool to see in a weird way, but unfortunately they got us.”
The Dodgers have won 104 games this season. They’ll win more. Friday was the strangest night of the season, getting shellacked by the Cardinals and being on the wrong side of history with Pujols, a man they dearly love.
When the swirling emotions quieted, the Dodgers recognized they’d witnessed rare greatness and weren’t ashamed to admit it.
“I don’t think people — whether you aren’t a player or have played — realize how hard it is to be consistent over two decades,” Roberts said. “There are guys who have a good season or a couple good seasons or a few good seasons, but to be able to take care of your body and have the drive year in and year out, to put you in this elite class — I don’t think even elite does it justice — it’s something I can’t even fathom, to be quite honest with you.”