St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny was among those who sent a congratulatory video to Albert Pujols after the slugger recorded his 3000th hit last night.
“I see the person, not just the player,” said Matheny, who has been involved in various charitable efforts with his former teammate. “The player–the stuff’s pretty obvious. Plenty of data to prove this is just unique and it didn’t take us long to realize we were watching something very special. But to me, the real difference maker is what we were able to see with him in the off-season. Just a completely different person, a completely different persona. I’ve never seen anybody so driven in my life, but when he had the opportunity to go make a difference in the community, I think he’s taken advantage of the platform as well as anybody ever has and continues to do so. But 3000, plus the 600 homers–man, that’s amazing.”
Matheny also still remembers the start of the 2001 season when Pujols got the news he was going to the big leagues.
“I was with him when Tony called him out of the weight room and called him into the office and told him he was going to Colorado with us,” recalled Matheny. “At that point, Albert didn’t have a sport coat in town. He just wasn’t expecting to be there. Those are great memories realizing now that you’re talking about one of the biggest names in the game.”
“Ahhh, we went shopping,” downplayed Matheny. “I remember going to Colorado and he just didn’t even know, am I actually going to be on the roster, then next thing you know he’s playing, and there was no turning back. Pretty good story.”
Mike Matheny has played alongside some other big names in the game–Barry Bonds, Jim Edmonds, Paul Molitor, Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen, and Robin Yount to name just a few. And while it may not be possible to choose the best, “all tied for first” he said borrowing a phrase from Tony La Russa, Matheny did elaborate on what stood out about the preparation of Albert Pujols.
“He knew himself and he knew what he needed to do as well as any player I’d ever seen,” said Matheny. “He was just an animal about hitting. When he walked in each day he had a clear idea what he needed to do. Watched him in the off-season, he had his own routine and stuck with it. I think where he set himself apart was mentally. It was nine months of him as locked into the game–that’s why I don’t think most people got to see the person that Albert really is because he truly committed those nine months to never giving an at-bat away, to never take a pitch off, how much pride he takes on the defensive side.
“A lot of the things we love about Yadi are also things that they kind of grew together in. Their passion for having the game played right. Looking for an edge all the time–all the little things that just are so rare to find. Just a winning player. That guy wanted to win as badly as anybody I’ve ever seen. Which sounds like everyone of us that walks out here should be, but there’s always a little bit of that ‘I’ve got to take care of my own’, but this guy just wanted to do things right to help the team. And to excel. It’s just rare.”
Despite interleague play, the Angels have yet to play in Busch Stadium since Pujols signed with the team after 2011. But there are rumblings that could change as soon as next season.
“I’m excited too for the day when he’s on this field,” said Matheny, glancing out at Busch Stadium before him. “It was tough when he left. It’s tough for Cardinal fans, tough for Cardinals baseball. You’re hoping that might be one of those guys that has that kind of career–because those first 10 years were as special as any history…
“So you knew that we were in the middle of something special and you were hoping it was something we’d continue to watch around here, but also understand that just doesn’t always work that way. Hopefully, over time some of those scars has healed. I do believe, there’s no doubt this guy’s going to be wearing some kind of coat out here someday and I think it’s going to be a great reunion with the fan base he had his first chance with.”
photo credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports, Bill Greenblatt/UPI, Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports