MLB

Wander Franco wears No. 5 jersey for Albert Pujols

ST. PETERSBURG — On March 1, 2001, Wander Franco was born in Bani, Dominican Republic. A month and a day later, on Opening Day of the 2001 MLB season, Albert Pujols made his Major League debut, wearing a No. 5 Cardinals jersey.

Twenty years, two months and 20 days — or 7,386 days, if you prefer — separated Pujols’ first game from Franco’s highly anticipated big league debut with the Rays on June 22, 2021.

Near the end of his first month in the Majors, Pujols’ St. Louis club faced a Montreal Expos team that featured Fernando Tatis and Vladimir Guerrero batting back to back. Their sons are Franco’s peers.

But there is something Pujols and Franco have in common: their number. As Franco told MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez last spring, he wears No. 5 “out of respect and tribute” to Pujols, the future Hall of Famer nearing the end of his decorated career but still making history with every ball he launches out of the park.

“He’s a legend. He’s a legendary ballplayer,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “You kind of look up to a guy like that. That’s what I’ve always appreciated about him.”

Franco is hardly the only young player who holds Pujols in such high regard. A generation of Major Leaguers grew up watching him coolly and calmly torment pitchers while piling up three National League MVP Awards, 11 All-Star nods and now 700 career home runs.

Now among Pujols’ peers, those players still display a certain reverence when speaking about him.

He’s obviously a superstar,” Franco said, a couple of weeks prior to Pujols reaching the milestone homer. “He’s a very disciplined hitter, very tough to strike out. Very good teammate. Just a great person and a great teammate. … If he keeps doing exactly what he’s doing right now, there’s no doubt that he can get more than 700.”

Pujols has been a particularly strong example for many Dominican and Latin American players, a responsibility he acknowledged and embraced while speaking in the corner of the visitors’ clubhouse at Tropicana Field earlier this season.

“I think my goal is just to always be an example for not just the Dominican players, but hopefully the American guys, too. Just go about doing my job and really take care of business, never take anything for granted,” Pujols said on June 8. “I always love and enjoy this game. I’m blessed to be wearing this uniform every day that I’m here in the big leagues. … I think with that comes a lot of responsibility, and that’s the way that you go about it. For me, that’s always been the main focus.”

And what does Pujols think about one of the game’s up-and-coming stars wearing No. 5 just for him?

“That means I’ve been playing this game for a long time, so I think it’s time to go,” Pujols said, grinning. “That’s why I’m doing it this year.”

Franco doubled over laughing when informed of Pujols’ self-deprecating response. The switch-hitting shortstop has been treated like a baseball celebrity since he was a teenager, the star of a press conference in Pujols’ hometown of Santo Domingo when he was only 13 years old. But still, hearing that Pujols talked about him — and knew why he chose his number — struck Franco as an honor.

“He’s a great person and a great legend,” Franco said. “All the blessings to him.”

Pujols’ career has overlapped not only with that of Franco, but also his uncles, Willy Aybar and Erick Aybar. In fact, Pujols and Erick Aybar were teammates with the Angels from 2012-15. During those years, Pujols would occasionally hear from Aybar about his talented young nephew establishing himself as a prospect to watch in the Dominican Republic. When Franco signed a massive long-term contract extension with the Rays last November, Aybar sent Pujols a text about it.

“Everything that he does on the field is pretty electric,” Pujols said of Franco. “[Franco is] somebody that pretty much has a good future in this league.”

Of course, Franco can only hope to enjoy as much success in a No. 5 jersey as the man who inspired him to wear it in the first place.

“I’ve always looked up to him. I’ve always admired him a lot,” Franco said through Navarro. “To everyone, it’s incredible what he does and what he’s accomplished and everything he’s been able to do in this game.

“It’s incredible. That’s why I wear No. 5, and I wear it solely for him.”


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