CHICAGO — Stepping into a major league clubhouse for the first time can be an intimidating experience for any rookie. For Juan Yepez, who joined the St. Louis Cardinals on May 3 after spending the first month of the season in Triple-A Memphis, he was about to join a locker room full of some of the biggest stars in the game. Fortunately, he had a friendly face waiting to greet him as he walked through the visitor’s side of Kauffman Stadium ahead of his major league debut a day later — Albert Pujols.
“You look around, there’s all these future Hall of Famers we have,” Yepez said earlier this week. “But when I got called up in Kansas City, the first guy who saw me was Albert. He gave me a huge hug, said it was good to have me here.
“That meant the world to me.”
Pujols has been many things to the game of baseball: Slugger. MVP. Gold Glove winner. World Series champion. But in his final season, mentor is the role he is embracing more than ever. Even in a leadership-laden Cardinals clubhouse, no one commands more respect than the 22-year MLB veteran. Now, as a part-time player, Pujols has more time to spend working with the team’s younger players.
“This role I have is doing whatever I can to help this team out,” Pujols said. “It’s about leaving a mark. So many guys did it for me. It’s almost like paying that favor forward to these guys.”
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 by not just Pujols but 39-year-old Yadier Molina and 40-year-old Adam Wainwright, too).
“We knew bringing him in would help this clubhouse,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “He’s super intentional about passing on what winning looks like to the young players. The reality is they’re all young compared to him.”
But the one who caught Pujols’ eye this spring was Yepez, a 24-year-old whose journey to the majors started when he joined the Atlanta Braves organization out of Venezuela in 2015. Pujols took note of his work ethic, understanding of the game and mindset of never taking things for granted.
Soaking in all of the advice from Pujols has paid off for Yepez thus far: During his first month in the big leagues, he posted a .796 OPS and belted four home runs while seeing time at first base, both outfield corners and designated hitter.
But the moment that stands out most to Yepez came off the field during Pujols’ annual charity golf event on May 26, three weeks into Yepez’ major league career.
“He met my fiancée and told her I was going to break all his records,” Yepez said. “I was like ‘What? Are you crazy? I’ve looked at your numbers, it’s impossible to break.”
“I wasn’t kidding. I think he has the talent and ability to do it,” Pujols said. “I believe he can do it. I see the dedication and work he puts in, day in and day out.”
Pujols has done more than just build up Yepez’ confidence: He is also willing to play the role of teacher when the moment calls for it, breaking down at-bats on his iPad and then heading to the batting cages to put his findings in action.
“He’s taken the time to teach me and talk to me every day,” Yepez said. “He’s watching my at-bats and looking at the iPad and he’s telling me ‘you need to do this or do 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 back in the place he spent his first decade as a major leaguer.
“You’re never too old or too young to learn,” Cardinals outfielder Corey Dickerson said. “He has a lot of knowledge. He studies. He asks questions. He gets other people’s opinions. For someone of that stature to be like that is the reason he’s so good.”
Sure, it’s early in what Pujols announced during spring training would be his final major league season, but so far he is thriving both as the elder statesman in the clubhouse and as a potent platoon designated hitter/bat off the bench.
Pujols has an OPS over 1.000 against left-handed pitching. He also has four home runs and on Tuesday he walked off the Padres with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th inning. The walk-off moment gave Pujols a chance to show some youthful exuberance of his own to his teammates.
“He was chuckling in his high-pitched laugh while we were jumping on him,” outfielder Harrison Bader recalled. “I’ll remember that high-pitched laugh and ear-to-ear smile, all his teeth showing. It shows you, it’s just a kid’s game and it’s hard to keep that perspective. Albert reminds us of that.”
“You have to have fun,” Pujols said. “I’m blessed to be back here where it all started.”
Celebrations in May and June are nice, but the goal in St. Louis is to be playing in October — just as the 2001 Cardinals did when Pujols came up and entered a clubhouse featuring stars such as Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds. Even if one of his current teammates was too young to remember those teams that made the postseason in five of Pujols’ first six major league seasons, he’ll remember the impact a St. Louis legend has had on the start of his own career.
“Since I’ve been alive, Albert Pujols has been playing baseball,” Yepez said with a smile. “He broke in when I was 3 years old!
“For him to be saying all these nice things about me, it’s just unbelievable.”