The statue is still there, standing on a patch of yellowing grass outside the St. Louis restaurant formerly known as Pujols 5. But there's no plaque or sign identifying the bronze ballplayer gazing up and pointing to the sky. Once a shrine to a local legend, the establishment is now a generic sports bar, with photos of still-beloved local heroes such as Schoendienst and Brock and Freese lining the walls. Many of the ex-eponym's jerseys, bats and signed baseballs are gone. It's as if Albert Pujols was just another Cardinal.
Prince Albert is now an Angel, and the city of St. Louis has moved on. The Cardinals are still winning, the offense is still humming, and every game at Busch Stadium still feels like a college football Saturday. On a recent, sweltering Monday, 40,000 fans squeezed into the stadium dressed in red, and in the eighth inning, when rightfielder Carlos Beltran, the man signed last winter to replace Pujols's bat in the order, swatted a two-run home run against the Dodgers, his 22nd in an MVP-caliber season, it was yet another reminder of how and why St. Louis has gotten past the Pujols divorce.
Even in light of the outfielder's July slump, it has been a perfect marriage, Beltran and St. Louis, the Most Underappreciated Player in Baseball and a city famous for its embrace of quiet, humble stars. He is rarely mentioned as one of the game's greats, yet the 35-year-old Beltran—one of eight players in major league history, and the only switch-hitter, with 300 homers and 300 stolen bases—has quietly put together a career that puts him in the Hall of Fame discussion. In Kansas City, where he began his career, Beltran was a dazzling but overlooked talent, his star dimmed by the AL Central cellar, where the Royals have slept for the better part of two decades. When he played with the Mets, from 2005 to '11, his profile rose—though not always for the better. Even though he put together two of the best seasons in franchise history and ranks in the Mets' top six alltime in home runs, OPS and RBIs, he became a symbol of failure. His signature New York moment was the called third strike he took to end Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS against the Cardinals. Perception of the seven-time All-Star (a career .366/.485/.817 hitter in the postseason) was so colored by the image of his frozen bat that Adam Wainwright, who unleashed the curveball that Beltran watched, avoided throwing breaking balls to his new teammate during batting practice this spring.
Beltran, who wept the day he was traded from the Royals, never seemed at ease in the big city. "I have a personality where I don't show a lot of emotions on the field, and maybe some fans like to see players that show a lot and say crazy things," he says. He adds, "But in St. Louis, I'm comfortable. The fans are unbelievable. You can feel their appreciation for how hard you play."
Maybe now, in his 15th season, Beltran will finally get his proper due. The case for Beltran as an alltime great only gets stronger the closer you look at his career. The advanced statistical analysts will tell you that over his career Beltran has a WAR above 60, which ranks him ninth alltime among centerfielders, the position he has played the most. They will tell you that for the bulk of his career, before knee injuries slowed him down, he has been one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, an effortless glide adding style to his substantive numbers. They will tell you that his stolen-base success rate (87.0%) is No. 1 among players with 300 or more steals.
No one in St. Louis seems particularly interested in talking about how Beltran is outhitting Pujols this season, or how the Cardinals' signing Beltran to a two-year, $26 million deal now looks like a much smarter play by the front office than a Pujols megadeal. No one seems interested in making any comparisons—all they talk about is Beltran's golden swing, the splendid season he's having. Carlos Beltran is his own man, and in St. Louis, that is more than good enough.
HE'S RARELY MENTIONED AS ONE OF THE GAME'S GREATS, YET HE'S HAD A CAREER THAT PUTS HIM IN THE HALL DISCUSSION.