When the Angels open their weekend series against the Cardinals in St. Louis, it'll mark the first time Albert Pujols returns to Busch Stadium since signing a 10-year, $240-million contract with Los Angeles in 2012.
Pujols' departure from St. Louis ushered in a precipitous decline in his play. With the Cardinals, he wasn't only a "Machine," as he was dubbed, he was a hitting God. When you line up the all-time greatest Cardinals, the list starts with Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith, and Pujols is unquestionably on it.
Over 11 seasons and 1,705 games with the Cardinals, Pujols batted .328/.420/.617 with 445 home runs, 455 doubles, 1,329 RBIs, and even stole 84 bases.
As Pujols returns to the city where he played his finest baseball, we look back and pinpoint five definitive moments of his career with the Redbirds.
It's worth remembering that Pujols was not a sure thing. Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays scout Fernando Arango begged his team to take a flier on the big-bodied Dominican in the 1999 draft - detailed in Jonah Keri's excellent book, "The Extra 2%" - but it declined. The Cardinals took Pujols in the 13th round, and after 133 minor-league games in 2000 he made the 2001 Opening Day roster.
While you can point to his first hit, home run, or multi-homer game as the highlight of his incredible rookie season, there's another theme at play.
Pujols' arrival coincided with Mark McGwire's sudden descent. Two years removed from hitting 65 home runs (and three from his then-record-setting 70), Big Mac hit .187 with 29 homers across 97 games. The power was still there, but that was about it.
Meanwhile, Pujols was named Rookie of the Year, after hitting .329/.403/.610 with 37 home runs.
Though 2001 wasn't the swan song McGwire had been hoping for, it served as a legendary passing-of-the-torch season to a special, generational talent.
Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge was untouchable for two seasons at the time of the 2005 NLCS. Then along came Pujols.
Pujols obliterated a three-run home run in Game 5 that is still orbiting the planet. The Cardinals lost the series, but the damage was done - and the home run is maybe the most famous of Pujols' career, even though it technically doesn't count among his overall numbers since the all-time list only measures regular-season accomplishments.
Lidge was eventually an All-Star again, but a certain group of Cardinals supporters will always remember him as the man who allowed Pujols' mighty wallop.
In 2006, two years after an excellent Cardinals team was slashed to ribbons by the buzzsaw, team of destiny Boston Red Sox, Pujols and St. Louis returned to the Fall Classic.
In Game 1, Pujols delivered the biggest blow with a two-run, third-inning homer off Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. It was one of only three hits Pujols had in the five-game series, but it was an important one that helped push a Cardinals team that won only 83 regular-season games to a World Series title.
It's impossible to overstate how difficult Pujols was to get out in his prime. After winning his second NL MVP Award in 2008, he came back and did it again. The first half of his 2009 season was especially impressive, as he hit 32 home runs while batting .332 over 90 games. He smashed 14 long balls in June alone.
Pujols' third MVP Award put him in ultra-exclusive company. Only Barry Bonds has won more than three MVP awards, while the list accompanying Pujols with the trifecta is relatively brief: Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, and Alex Rodriguez. That's it.
In the years after Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and other big-name Cardinals from the 2006 championship run, an older Pujols was part of a new generation that returned to baseball's brightest stage in 2011. He and Matt Holliday formed the heart of the order, alongside Lance Berkman.
Pujols was about to hit free agency, and had already lost a step - 2011 was the first season where the seams started to show. For the first time, he hit under .300 (barely, finishing at .299) and failed to drive in 100 runs (also barely, finishing with 99).
But Pujols came alive in the playoffs, absolutely demolishing the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS (1.469 OPS), and remaining key contributor against the Texas Rangers.
Postseason hero David Freese gets all the accolades for Cardinals' 2011 run, and rightfully so based on his absurd production. But the Cardinals certainly don't win another title without Pujols. His performance in Game 3 of the World Series stands above all others, as he went 5-for-6 with three homers, four runs scored, and six driven in.
Albert Pujols ended his Cardinals tenure on top. He was bound for Cooperstown the day he left St. Louis, with a 10-year stop in Los Angeles along the way.
Feel free to share your favorite Pujols moments from his Cardinals career in the comments.
(Videos courtesy: MLB)