Hochman: Albertcito! Pujols’ legacy will live on in play of Cardinals protégé Yepez

Hochman: Albertcito! Pujols’ legacy will live on in play of Cardinals protégé Yepez

There is something beautiful going on at Busch Stadium this summer. But it’s not something you can stop and watch — it doesn’t come with the price of admission. It happens organically and often behind the scenes, albeit a moment in the dugout caught on camera.

In Albert Pujols’ final season, the great slugger has taken an active role in mentoring young players, notably Juan Yepez, the right-handed-hitting rookie. Pujols even asked Yepez to live with him this season, but Yepez had already locked in an apartment.

And while Pujols’ numbers have dropped, his wisdom has surely boosted the numbers of Yepez, who catapulted a three-run shot and a two-run shot Monday, giving him nine homers on the season. Yepez entered Monday with the third-most hits of any National League rookie.

“I can’t think of a better situation for him, honestly,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said of Yepez, whose .791 OPS entering Monday was fourth-highest on the team. “Ever since Yepez got here, he’s made it a point to be by his side nonstop.

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“After every at-bat, after the game, they sit there and talk. As soon as they get here, they eat together and they’re talking baseball. So it’s every second of the day. I think Yepez has done a really nice job of taking advantage of it but also just being intentional about asking him questions. There’s a comfort there.”

Albert’s St. Louis legacy was intact 11 years ago, let alone now, as the Hall of Famer returned for one final run in Cardinal red. But even after Pujols’ impending retirement, his legacy will live on in the play of Yepez. And that’s pretty cool. Adam Wainwright calls Yepez “Albertcito,” as a reference to “little Albert.”

“When you think of (Pujols’) experience and his wisdom, and how he’s willing to share that, I think we’re all grateful for it,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “When Albert was here in 2011 and he left, to see where his mind and state of happiness is now, I just think it’s a great story for the game of baseball. And I think the Cardinals are beneficiaries of it. He wanted to do that back here (in St. Louis). And the interesting thing is we’re a young team — we have a lot of less-experienced players getting opportunities. To see him invest his time and energy into them? I’m eternally grateful.”

Thirty-three days after Pujols turned 18, a boy was born in Caracas, Venezuela.

During his elementary days, Yepez fondly recalls playing the video game called MVP Baseball — and the 2004 version featured Pujols on the cover.

Today, Pujols is 42; Yepez is 24.

“Just being here and having that relationship with him — if you told me that when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Yepez said. “It’s a dream come true. … I’m just taking it all in, trying to learn as much as I can from him. I’m so thankful that he has taken the time to just talk to me and teach me whatever he thinks I should get better at. I am thankful to God to be able to let all this happen.

“(He’s helped with) a couple of things mentally from the game. He’ll say, ‘You need to get better in that situation — what are they going to throw you, how is the pitcher is going attack you?’ And mechanically, one thing he has seen since I got to the big leagues, sometimes I’m flying open with my shoulder, my head.

“All around, I’ve just been a sponge. Open ears, listening to him every time he talks.”

In the dugout, Pujols occasionally has his arm around Yepez as the two chat. And when Yepez returns to the dugout after a big hit, Pujols provides a bear hug and a smile as wide as a strike zone.

As for Albert, this final season has been as final seasons can be — unforgiving and unfortunate. He entered Monday with a .196 batting average and an OPS of .635. His abilities to dominate southpaws keep him in the majors — this year, his batting average is .317 against lefties — but the nature of the game is going to force him to face righties, too.

But when he’s in the batter’s box, bending his knees and unleashing his glare, he’s still Albert Pujols. He’s still the guy who has hit 683 home runs and has a few more left in that bat. He has uncoiled a quartet of four-baggers this season.

But he has to wait patiently to play. He didn’t get a plate appearance all weekend against the Cubs, whose pitching he famously used to club. And on Monday, yet again, the Cardinals’ designated hitter was … Yepez. Still, the classy legend has handled this final season with great grace.

At his locker Sunday, I asked Pujols about taking pride in mentoring Yepez.

“I don’t think it’s pride — I think it’s a responsibility that you have with the young players,” No. 5 said. “I mean, it’s just like everybody had done with me when I came up and was young. I’m pretty much just trying to help them as much as I can — whatever question, whatever way they want me to help thing. I think that just part of the responsibility of being a veteran guy, because somebody did that for me, so why not do it for others?”


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