Now is the right time for Albert Pujols to walk away from baseball

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If 2021 is indeed the final season of Albert Pujols’ career, he’ll leave as one of the greatest hitters baseball has ever known.

How will the career of Albert Pujols be remembered?

Will it be the phenom who broke into the league with the St. Louis Cardinals and immediately established himself as one of the greatest hitters of all-time? No player ever hit more home runs over the first decade of his career than Pujols (408, 38 more than Eddie Mathews). Only Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams drove in more runs. Among players to debut since World War II, Ichiro Suzuki, Wade Boggs, and Pete Rose are the only three players with more hits over their first 10 seasons than Pujols.

But Pujols’ career didn’t end then. Following the 2011 season, he left the Cardinals to sign a 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels, a contract that finally expires at the end of 2021. He remained a good hitter, even an All-Star caliber one, but the Pujols that baseball fans saw in St. Louis was no longer there.

Pujols’ decline saw a tangible effect in 2020. He began his career 4-14 over his first four games; on April 7, 2001, he went 2-4 to climb above the .300 mark. His career average never dipped below that for the next 19 years. When he left St. Louis, he was a career .328 hitter. But a career-low mark of .224 last season dropped him to a career .299 hitter. His career slugging percentage in St. Louis was .617. With the Angels, meanwhile, he hasn’t had a season even above .500 since 2012. In 2020, he ranked 139th in hard-hit percentage and 106th in average exit velocity.

But that’s not what most fans will think when they look back on Pujols’ career. They’ll fondly remember the slugger who sent a ball onto the railroad tracks during a playoff game in Houston or the three-time NL MVP who once hit three home runs in a World Series game.

The 40-year-old Pujols will be the oldest regular position player once the 2021 season begins. It may be his last. His wife posted on Instagram that her husband was retiring following this season, before later amending that statement to suggest she was only talking about his current contract.

Albert Pujols says he isn’t retiring after his wife’s confusing post

If Pujols does plan on walking away after this season, though, it is the right time. His place in baseball immortality is firmly secured. He’s one of only four players in history with both 600 career home runs and 3,000 hits, along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez. In 2020, he passed Mays for fifth-place on the all-time home run list and Rodriguez for third on the career RBI list, now trailing only Aaron and Babe Ruth.

“It’s a legacy that’s going to live forever,” he said last September upon tying Mays. “I’m just blessed to have that opportunity.”

Baseball fans, not just in St. Louis and Los Angeles but around the world, were blessed to witness it. If 2021 is indeed the end of the line for Pujols, he leaves knowing there is nothing left for him to accomplish in the game. His legend began in St. Louis, and that’s the player who will be mentioned for generations to come.

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