USA TODAY US Edition

If close to 700, Pujols may play on

- Bob Nightengal­e

TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s perhaps Major League Baseball’s most exclusive and esteemed club.

Just three men have accomplish­ed the feat in baseball history, and only two in the last 85 seasons.

It’s the 700-home run club.

The only members are Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

Now, with Angels slugger Albert Pujols sitting on 662 home runs, if he gets close this year and has a legitimate chance to join the trio, he’d like to march on and keep playing past this season with a chance to be among baseball’s immortals.

“If I’m close to it, why not?” Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t try to chase numbers, but 700 is a big number.

“If I don’t re-sign with the Angels, I’m going to have to find a team that will give me that opportunit­y. I just wish I had been able to stay healthy and didn’t have those injuries.

“Can you imagine if I had kept the pace I was on when I was in St. Louis? I’d have 800 homers by now.” Pujols passed Willie Mays (660) last season for fifth on the home run list. Next up is Alex Rodriguez (696), who retired before he could reach the 700homer milestone.

Pujols, who is entering his 20th major league season, is in the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract with Los Angeles.

TEMPE, Ariz. – It was 20 years ago when Albert Pujols strolled into the Cardinals spring training complex for the first time, sharing a locker in a cramped clubhouse and in awe while surrounded by major league stars.

He was just a 21-year-old kid, with only one season in the minors. He figured if everything went well, he could open the year in Class AAA.

“I was the guy that wasn’t even supposed to make the team,” Pujols tells USA TODAY Sports. “I got invited to spring training just to be around the big-league guys. I never thought I was going to make the team. But I’m a guy that if you open a door, you’re going to get the best out of me, and that’s what I did.”

Pujols had a monster spring, 38-year-old veteran Bobby Bonilla pulled his hamstring, and Pujols was on the opening-day roster. He hit .329 with 37 homers, 130 RBI and a 1.013 OPS in his rookie season and proceeded to become one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history.

A three-time MVP who finished among the top five in 10 seasons and a two-time World Series champion, Pujols enters what could be his final season with 662 home runs, 2,100 RBI, 3,236 hits and 1,843 runs. He ranks fifth all time in homers and trails only immortals Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in RBI.

Pujols hasn’t decided if he will retire after this season, but it’s the final year of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels, with a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract when he hangs it up.

“I’ll make that decision at the end of the year,” he said. “And when that times comes that I do retire, it won’t be on Instagram or anything like that. My fans deserve better than that. I’ll have a press conference so everyone knows at once. But my mind isn’t going there right now.”

Pujols sat down this week with USA TODAY Sports in an expansive 90-minute interview, providing his opinions, emotions and sentiments of his 20-year major league career.

Q: This is the 20th year anniversar­y of your major league career. What do you remember the most about that spring?

“I haven’t shared this story with a lot of people, but I was sharing a locker with Gene Stechschul­te, this big righthande­d pitching prospect. As soon as you walked into the Cardinals clubhouse, I was right there to the right. So one day, we had only like 12 days left, and I walk in and my locker isn’t there. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I got sent down.’ I was like, ‘Oh well, I had a great spring, and I loved the experience being around the guys.’

“So I went straight to (Cardinals manager) Tony’s (La Russa) office and said, ‘Hey I just want you to know how grateful I am. Thank you for the experience that you gave me. I just wanted to thank you for the opportunit­y.’ Well, Tony’s face is confused, like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Finally, he says, ‘Hold on, Albert, stop. What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Oh, I just got sent down.’

“He said, ‘What?’ He jumps out of his chair, goes in the clubhouse and says, ‘What the heck is going on.’ He was pissed. Well, that was my first rookie mistake. It turned out they moved my locker to the left side where they had all of the guys who made the team. They put me in between Placido Polanco and Edgar Renteria. That was a true story.”

Q: You will forever be idolized in St. Louis, do you ever have regrets leaving the Cardinals after the 2011 season and signing with the Angels as a free agent?

“You know, everything happens for a reason. No regrets. I know how hard they worked to try to keep me, and how hard I worked to try to stay there, but at the end of the day, it just didn’t work out. I don’t regret it. It was the best for both of us. People say, ‘What would have happened if you stayed in St. Louis?’ My best numbers are in St. Louis, but it probably would have been worse if I stayed since I had those injuries and they don’t have a DH.

“But I love that city. Those people were great to me. And they’re still great to me 20 years later. I came there as a little boy and left as a grown man. Our lives will always be blessed being in St. Louis.”

Q: What was it like when you returned for the first time in 2019 when the Angels played the Cardinals?

“That was one of the best experience­s, maybe the best, of my career. I’ll never forget that. I mean, it didn’t shock me that I’d get a standing ovation in my first at-bat there, but did I think 13 or 14 standing ovations? No. That’s Cardinals Nation, man. That’s how loyal their fans are. There’s something about Cardinals fans.”

Q: Have you talked to Nolan Arenado what to expect now playing in St. Louis after leaving Colorado?

“When everything was going down I went to his batting cage and his warehouse a couple of times. I actually spoke to him the day that trade went down. I told him, ‘If that deal goes down, you better not miss that opportunit­y. You are going to love it. You’re never going to see anything like it.’

“I’m just so happy for him because he’s such a cool dude. Cardinals Nation is going to fall in love with that kid. I hope he tears it up out there. Hopefully he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself, but the fans know what kind of player he is.”

Q: Would you like to play for the Cardinals one last time, particular­ly if the National League adopts the DH?

“That’s like the million-dollar question. Everybody asks me that. Hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is the last year of my contract, and I feel like I can play. I feel good. My body feels great. Mentally, I feel like I can continue to play. But I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. Who knows?”

Q: If you decide during the season you will retire after the season ends, would you announce it ahead of time to have a farewell tour?

“I don’t think I’m ever going to think this is it. My mind is not there. … But why announce something right now and if I have a great year decide I want to keep playing. So I don’t want to deal with that.”

Q: In your 20-year career, who is the best player you ever played against?

“Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter by far.”

Q: The most feared hitter?

“Barry Bonds.”

Q: Most athletic player?

“Larry Walker.”

Q: Best overall player?

“Mike Trout.”

Q: Favorite teammates?

“Placido Polanco. Edgar Renteria. Fernando Vina. Mike Matheny. Woody Williams. Yadier Molina. Jimmy Edmonds. Jimmy and Placido probably helped me the most in my career. Darryl Kile. Mike Trout. Mark McGwire, playing with him his final year, was really special.”

Q: Do you stay in touch with McGwire?

“I was just over at his house, hitting with his boys. You should see his son, Max. He’s 17. I’m telling you right now, remember this day, that kid is going to be a star. He’s built just like his dad with quick hands, athletic, unbelievab­le.”

Q: Your favorite stadium? “Pittsburgh. PNC Park. That place is gorgeous. On a beautiful summer night, there’s nothing like it. It helps that I have good numbers there too.”

Q: Favorite road city?

“Seattle. It’s just so beautiful. I like going to Miami too, but I don’t go there enough now being in the American League.”

Q: How is it playing with Mike Trout, are your personalit­ies similar at all?

“He’s more fun because he laughs all of the time. I’m more serious. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get serious. He’s just a kid that wants to have fun, where I was more serious about how I go about business. But you can tell how much he cares. He wants to win, man. Hopefully we can win a championsh­ip together before I retire.

Q: And talent-wise?

“That kid’s a pretty special player. I joke around with him and say can you imagine if we had our prime-time years together, my time in St. Louis and yours now? It would probably be the best duo together in the history of the game.”

Q: Is it painful not having been able to win a World Series or even get close for your owner, Arte Moreno?

“It is, I wish we would have won one, but it’s not over. We still have a chance. It’s not his fault we haven’t won. He’s given us great teams, and given us a great product, but it’s up to us to perform. He has invested so much into this organizati­on. He can’t control what we do in the field. If people want to blame anyone, blame the players.”

Q: Have you thought about what you may do when you retire?

“I don’t know what the future holds for me, but if I ever had that opportunit­y to manage or coach, I think I’d be interested. Why not? I’d like to take some time off, travel a little bit out of the country, particular­ly Europe. I want to be around my kids. I want to spend time with my son, AJ. (who attends Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California), and help him with his pro golf dreams. But I would like to stay in the game.”

Q: OK, when you are elected into the Hall of Fame, do you wear a Cardinals cap, Angels cap or no cap?

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Q: What was the best advice you ever received?

“It was from Tony La Russa. Never change. Don’t take anything for granted. You have to earn everything. Nothing is given to you.”

Q: So much has changed in the game since your rookie season, what do you like the most and what do you like the least?

Pujols: The biggest change I’ve seen is the analytics stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I mean there’s some good things to learn there, I just think it becomes a problem when you take those gifts and talent and wisdom from human beings and trying to rely on computers and numbers. I don’t think the computer can tell you how to be mentally strong and tough.”

Q: You’ve played 11 years in the National League and nine in the AL, which style of baseball do you prefer?

“I’ve missed the action in the National League and the strategy. But I enjoy the DH. I would love to see the DH in the NL, too, especially the next few years until we get things back to normal. I think it gives more players an opportunit­y.”

Q: When you leave this game, how do you want to be remembered?

“I want to be remembered as being one of the best teammates anyone ever had, a guy who gave it his all. No regrets . ... It’s like what Tony told me, ‘Play every game like it’s the last game of the World Series.’ And that’s what I’ve done. God blessed me with a great opportunit­y and I never wanted to let him down.”

 ?? USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Twenty-year MLB player Albert Pujols slugged his 662nd career home run in September.
USA TODAY SPORTS Twenty-year MLB player Albert Pujols slugged his 662nd career home run in September.
 ?? MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Albert Pujols on his preference of NL play or AL play: “I’ve missed the action in the National League and the strategy. But I enjoy the DH.”
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS Albert Pujols on his preference of NL play or AL play: “I’ve missed the action in the National League and the strategy. But I enjoy the DH.”
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