CHICAGO – Stepping into a major league clubhouse for the first time can be an intimidating experience for any newcomer. For Juan Yepez, who joined the St. Louis Cardinals on May 3 after spending the first month of the season at Triple-A Memphis, he was about to join a locker room full of some of football’s biggest stars. Luckily, he had a friendly face waiting to greet him as he walked through the visitors’ side of Kauffman Stadium a day later ahead of his major league debut – Albert Pujols.
“Look around, there’s all these future Hall of Famers that we have,” Yepez said earlier this week. “But when I was called up in Kansas City, Albert was the first to see me. He gave me a big hug and said it was good to have me here.
“It meant the world to me.”
Pujols has contributed many things to the game of baseball: Slugger. MVP. Gold Glove Winner. World Champion of the series. But in his final season, the role of mentor is the role he’s embracing more than ever. Even in a clubhouse packed with Cardinals leadership, nobody commands more respect than the 22-year MLB veteran. As a part-time player, Pujols now has more time to work with the team’s younger players.
“This role I have is to do whatever it takes to help this team,” said Pujols. “It’s about leaving a mark. So many guys have done it for me. It’s almost like I’m doing these guys a favor.”
Pujols, 42, is the oldest player in the majors. He has more than a decade on most players on the Cardinals roster (an average age of 29.4 is raised not only by Pujols, but also by 39-year-old Yadier Molina and 40-year-old Adam Wainwright).
“We knew bringing him in would help this clubhouse,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. “He’s very keen to teach the young players what winning looks like. The reality is they are all young compared to him.”
But the one who caught Pujols’ attention this spring was Yepez, a 24-year-old whose path to the majors began when he joined the Atlanta Braves from Venezuela in 2015. Pujols noted his work ethic and understanding of the game and attitude of never taking things for granted.
Soaking in all of Pujols’ advice has paid off for Yepez so far: In his first month in the big leagues, he posted a .796 OPS and hit four homers while seeing time at first base, both in the outfield corners and as designated batsman.
But the moment that stands out the most for Yepez came off the course during Pujols’ annual charity golf event on May 26, three weeks into Yepez’s major league career.
“He met my fiancee and told her I was going to break all his records,” Yepez said. “I thought, ‘What? Are you crazy? I looked at your numbers, it’s impossible to crack them.”
“I wasn’t kidding. I think he has the talent and ability to do it,” said Pujols. “I think he can do it. I see the dedication and work he puts in every day.”
Pujols has done more than just build Yepez’s confidence: he’s also willing to play the role of teacher when the moment calls for it, dismantling at-bats on his iPad and then heading to the batting cages to share his findings in to implement the deed.
“He took the time to tutor and talk to me every day,” Yepez said. “He watches my bats and looks at the iPad and says, ‘You have to do this or that.’
“He tells me what he thinks might work for me, then we work on it and it usually works.”
Pujols is also reaping the benefits of interacting with so many new faces in the place where he spent his first decade as a major league.
“You’re never too old or too young to learn,” said Cardinals outfielder Corey Dickerson. “He has a lot of knowledge. He studies. He asks questions. He gets other people’s opinions. Being like that is why he’s so good.”
Sure, it’s early in what Pujols announced during spring training that it would be his last major league season, but so far he’s thriving both as an elder statesman in the clubhouse and as a strong pull working as a hitter/slugger from the Bank is referred to.
Pujols has an OPS of over 1,000 against left-handed pitching. He also has four home runs and on Tuesday he left the Padres with a sacrificial fly in the bottom of the 10th Inning. The walk-off moment gave Pujols a chance to show off his teammates’ youthful exuberance.
“He was giggling in his high-pitched laugh as we jumped on him,” recalled outfielder Harrison Bader. “I will remember that high-pitched laugh and ear-to-ear smile as he showed all his teeth. It shows you that it’s just a no-brainer and it’s hard to keep that perspective. Albert reminds us of that.”
“You have to have fun,” said Pujols. “I am blessed to be back where it all began.”
The May and June celebrations are nice, but the goal in St. Louis is to play in October — just like the Cardinals did in 2001, when Pujols showed up and walked into a clubhouse filled with the likes of Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds. While one of his current teammates was too young to remember the teams that made it into the postseason in five of Pujols’ first six major league seasons, he will remember the impact a St .Louis had early in his own career.
“Albert Pujols has played baseball since I was alive,” Yepez said with a smile. “He broke in when I was 3 years old!
“For him to say all these nice things about me is just amazing.”