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St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols connects for his 14th inning game winning solo home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols hits a walk-off home run in the 14th inning against the Dodgers on July 13, 2006. (James A. Finley / Associated Press)

Derrick Goold has been covering the St. Louis Cardinals for 18 seasons for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, including the last eight seasons of Albert Pujols’career, during which he had a front-row seat to not only one of the most ferocious primes in the sport’s history, but also to the future Hall of Famer’s gentle influence in the clubhouse, which still defines the Dodgers’ slugger to this day.

Tonight Pujols will face the Cardinals for the first time as member of the Dodgers, with whom he officially signed on May 17. Though he is only hitting .210 with Los Angeles, Pujols is coming off a series against the San Francisco Giants in which he hit two home runs and was robbed of a game-winning third by Mike Tauchman on Friday night. He also surpassed Babe Ruth on the all-time extra-base hit list.

In a weekend interview with The Los Angeles Times, Goold — a 2019 and 2020 Associated Press Sports Editors Award winner in the beat writer category and the host of “The Best Podcast in Baseball,”— discussed the Cardinals own internal conversations about signing Pujols, how he will be received when he returns to St. Louis in September and the impact Pujols has on teammates, especially young ones.

Los Angeles Times: After Pujols was released by the Angels, the popular national conviction seemed to be that he was St. Louis-bound, or very much in the mix for a reunion? How did the organization and the fan base receive the news that he had chosen the Dodgers, or any team other than the Cards?

Derrick Goold: There was definitely a warm gust of nostalgia that gripped the fan base with visions of a magical sendoff dancing in so many heads. That’s based on the emails I received, the buzz in the fan base on Twitter, and I’m sure all the crackling conversations on sports radio.

Internally, the Cardinals explored the idea, for sure. The president of the club said how could they not. They couldn’t deny the romantic possibility of a reunion and the jolt it would give their fans — right at the same time they were about to expand capacity and put more tickets on sale. The conversations within the walls at Busch Stadium were about the benefit of bringing back Pujols from a business standpoint, from the shared history and closure perspective, from the chance to capture magic, and then from the baseball view.

It’s that last part where it’s the clear the decision not to pursue him was made. I was told there were “headwinds” for a reunion. They compared Pujols to who they had on the bench, and they were under the impression that Pujols wanted to play more than they could offer because Paul Goldschmidt plays 29 out of 30 games at first. Most of the fans I’ve heard from were disappointed, and that was probably more acute because he did end up with an NL team (no DH) and that NL team just happened to be considered the best team in baseball, so why couldn’t the Cardinals use him?

From an official standpoint, they felt the timing was off. I was told if it were August or September they would have eagerly sought that reunion for a stretch run and chance to give Pujols the coda in red the Angels didn’t.

LAT: The Dodgers don’t visit St. Louis until late summer. What do you anticipate the reception will be for Pujols?

Goold: Warm. Enthusiastic. Effusive. Thunderous. Ovations galore. He will tip his cap, hold back a laugh as Yadier Molina keeps the ovation going just long enough to get an emotional response from Pujols. He’s adored in St. Louis and always will be. He got a curtain call when he hit a home run — as an opposing player. And the pitcher who allowed the homer said it was one of the cooler moments he had on a ballfield.

There’s this sense in some corners that because the Cardinals didn’t sign him the fans will never get a chance to call him a Cardinal ever again. There is a lot of applause ahead for Pujols in St. Louis. He’s going to get a red coat and go in the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame a few years before he enters Cooperstown. He’ll always be invited to Opening Day ceremonies. There will be Pujols Day at the ballpark. His number will be retired. A statue will go up. They’ll have decades ahead of cheering for him as one of their own. It just will be with a Hall of Fame pin on his lapel, not a bat in his hand.

LAT: Jorge Castillo has written extensively on the clubhouse impact of Pujols, which has been sold as an essential, if hard-to-quantify, argument for his roster spot. Recognizing that it’s been nearly a decade since you covered him on a daily basis, can you share your thoughts on his clubhouse presence and value?

Goold: There are so many stories that might serve as an example of this. When he first met the late Oscar Taveras, considered the finest hitting prospect the Cardinals’ produced since Pujols, he brought the teenager into the big-league clubhouse at spring training and gave him one of his personal bats. Said it was time he had a tool to go with his talent, and to give it a try. When Colby Rasmus was struggling to connect in the clubhouse, Pujols called him up during a road trip and took him out to dinner, just the two of them, to try and connect.

Pujols would go at least once every spring training to the back fields to talk to the minor-leaguers about the work that it takes to take advantage of the first opportunity they get to advance, because there he was — a 13th-round pick who vaulted to Class AAA for the playoffs in 2000 and was in the majors and rookie of the year in 2001. He would describe how his production made that swift ascent possible but how preparation made that production possible. To prove his point, he would hit each day of spring at about the same time, and the door was open to young players to come watch. He might not say much. But he would show a lot. And he welcomed them being there.

This past October, Randy Arozarena, the Tampa Bay Rays’ playoff sensation, was describing tee drills that helped him, and how he learned them while being a Cardinal minor-leaguer. Those were the tee drills Pujols did, showed the young hitters, and nine years later — two generations of players in baseball terms — here was Arozarena describing those same things. Coincidence? Maybe. But probably not. You’re right, it’s been 10 years since I got to see it in person, but what we saw then was a player willing to show his work, share his insight to anyone who showed him they were interested and invested in getting better.

LAT: This is the Dodgers’ first look at the Cardinals this year. As we hit the one-third mark, what are your three biggest takeaways on the Cardinals and where they’re headed (perhaps toward a return trip to L.A. for you in October)?

Goold: First, they’re as good as their starting pitching lets them be. If they can get a rotation to consistently crank out quality starts then a strong bullpen gets to flex within its roles and the offense doesn’t have to carry more than it can. They’re built to be driven by their rotation and an exceptional defense.

Secondly, they’ve been challenged by injuries (who hasn’t?) and that has undermined the consistency of the rotation. The division race will be a race to get healthy and a race to get starting pitching, which they could add via health or trade. They have the roster and talent to win the division. How far that gets them into October? They’ll need an addition to propel a postseason run, to be as robust as the teams out west. They’ve feasted on losing teams and been reminded by contending teams of the gap they still must close to contend beyond the NL Central.

And, finally, up third: Something to watch as the season progresses is how Jack Flaherty, Monday’s starter who grew up going to Dodger games, emerges as the ace promised and Cy Young contender expected, and also how the team becomes a reflection of Nolan Arenado and his personality.

He wanted to be a Cardinal to contend.

Well, here’s that chance.

He sure seems primed to make the most of it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.