On Albert Pujols and the grace of retiring gracelessly

I come from a long line of people who refuse to retire. My dad, a vascular surgeon, is 66 and shows no signs of slowing down, and my grandpa, also a doctor, worked past his 90th birthday. He was stooped over by then, half a foot shorter than he’d been as a younger man. When it was time to go to the office, his wife would wait as he shuffled into the passenger seat of their dark-green minivan, then drive him across town.

He’d actually shuttered his private practice at a semi-reasonable age—in his 80s—but he couldn’t stand being idle. He was physically deteriorating, had heart problems and should’ve been squarely on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship. But he was also bored and stubborn, which is how he became what I can only describe as a freelance physician, doing medical examinations of people involved in workman’s compensation cases. God knows what his diagnostic skills were like by the end. He went to medical school during World War II. But he wanted to work, and he was sharp enough to do it, and I was proud of him. I knew I was lucky to have inherited his obstinance.

Retirement can be a graceless process. Ambition and work ethic mutate. They make people intractable, unable to see their circumstances for what they are: an old man in sagging pants and a cardigan, his white hair mussed and wispy, taking a plaintiff’s pulse.

A baseball player years past his prime insisting he can still play every day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandpa, and my dad, and the stubbornness that’s stamped onto my own DNA lately, ever since the Angels DFA’d Albert Pujols. I’ve been thinking about how miserable it must be to watch your career fizzle on the news, to be so publicly fired when everything in the world except your own brain says it’s long past time to retire.

And then Saturday afternoon, Pujols signed with the last team anyone expected: the Dodgers. He’d cleared waivers, which put the Angels on the hook for the bulk of the $30 million he’s still owed. Any team willing to take a flier on the best hitter of his generation would be able to do so for spare change, but very few had interest. This wasn’t about the cost of a swollen deal signed back in 2011, about Pujols falling short of expectations that were always too lofty to meet. Instead, it was about his own expectation to play every day, to be given a job he’s no longer qualified for.

The Pujols I watched as a teenager at Busch Stadium wasn’t so much invincible as inevitable. He was going to make a difference, be the difference. Just give him a minute. And now, too many minutes later, he’s disposable, hoping baseball might wring one last miracle out of his 41-year-old frame. And if it can’t, well, the Dodgers can do what the Angels did. Pujols’s career is now a proposition of ifs, not whens: if he’s not a liability in the field, if he can keep hitting lefty pitching, if he can stick around for a homecoming in St. Louis on September 6.

Still, if (when?) he debuts for the Dodgers, it’ll be to fanfare. He’s a future Hall of Famer. Younger players idolize him. He has 667 home runs and a career OPS of .921—even after a decade of mediocrity at the plate. But forget all of that for a second. Strip away the spectacle, the packed stands, the hundreds of millions of dollars, and you’re left with a man. You’re left with my grandpa in the passenger seat of that minivan, aching and off to conduct yet another physical. You’re left with your high school crush at a 10-year reunion, with thinning hair and a beer gut and no idea he can’t get the girl. This is the human condition, a condition that once upon a time did not apply to Albert Pujols.

A few days into spring training, Pujols’s wife posted to Instagram that he planned to retire at the end of 2021. It was huge news—until Pujols denied her report and she clarified that she’d just meant his contract would expire at the end of the season. Now, I can’t help but wonder: What if he hadn’t contradicted her? What if he’d taken a moment to feel the 2,886 games of aches and bruises, to realize the ball isn’t ever going to jump off the bat the way it used to?

If Pujols had decided this was it, he’d have turned the year into a farewell tour. He’d have gotten a surfboard in San Diego, a cowboy hat in Arlington, photos and bases and memorabilia to lug home on the team plane. There is no way he’d have been DFA’d in the middle of the party. He’d have slogged through the year, through the end of an unceremonious decade, and waved goodbye as a legend. Few would’ve talked about his precipitous decline, how no other player elected to Cooperstown in recent memory has been as bad as he has for as long.

It would’ve been tidy, choreographed, everything this isn’t. And it’s easy for you or me to say that would’ve been better, that enough is enough. I have nothing on the line but my memories, my certainty that this man was as good as it gets. I’m ready to talk about Pujols in the past tense—but he’s still operating in the messy present, and he’s earned that. Years from now, the end won’t matter. This drawn-out conclusion will be nothing more than a footnote, a shrug, evidence not that he waited too long to walk away, but of how much there was to walk away from.