BOSTON (USA TODAY)-- David Freese, the hero of the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series championship in 2011, was lying in bed when he heard the news.
He instantly was overcome by nausea.
"I almost threw up," Freese said. "Seriously, that was my reaction."
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Albert Pujols, the man widely considered to be the greatest player in baseball, was leaving St. Louis.
"Holy cow," Freese said. "Albert is gone."
Remarkably, two years later, the Cardinals are playing their first World Series game in 26 years today (8:07 p.m. ET) without Pujols.
The only thing more surprising is the identity of their opponent: the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox, 14 months after unloading a record $264 million in contracts on the Los Angeles Dodgers, went from last to first, turning a 93-loss season into an American League pennant with 97 victories.
It is the greatest turnaround in franchise history.
"That trade was shocking. It was really upsetting to see my teammates leave," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "I didn't throw up, but it left a pit in your stomach."
The Cardinals don't have Pujols, their three-time MVP, who received a 10-year, $240 million contract from the Los Angeles Angels. The Red Sox don't have former All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett or super utilityman Nick Punto.
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Yet here they are without the game's biggest stars, and the biggest payrolls, playing for baseball's ultimate prize.
"You can't understand it at the time, because as players we don't know any better," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz says. "When you see that bag full of superstars going away, it's a shocker.
"But at the same time, I tell you, it was needed."
The Red Sox replaced their rich superstars with cohesion, replacing cliquish clubhouse chicken-and-beer fests for team dinners. There's not a closer-knit team in baseball, with about a dozen impromptu get-togethers this year in which at least 20 players showed up.
The latest shindig was Sunday night at Ortiz's house, and he reminded everyone that he's just as hungry for a ring now as he was when they won in 2004 and 2007. He and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina are the only players remaining on their clubs from that 2004 World Series.
"We don't have a team that's full of superstars," Ortiz says. "We just have talented people with a good heart, trying to make things happen.
"That's all you need. Look at us. Look at them."
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The Cardinals have 17 homegrown players, with only four players on their World Series roster earning more than $10 million.
The Cardinals aren't going to lie and say they don't miss Pujols and his lethal production, but it's like trading in a reliable Mercedes sedan for an unproven six-speed.
"I knew it was going to look different, and I knew it was going to require a different strategy," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "Fortunately for us, the one we went with worked."
Yes, to say the Cardinals' strategy worked is like Bill Gates telling his buddies that his computer software has a chance to catch on.
"I didn't think they could take one of the greatest players on the planet off a World Series team and they wouldn't feel it," says Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals' former vice president of scouting and player development who was hired as Houston Astros GM the same day Pujols departed.
"I don't think anybody felt the team would be better without him. You lose a player of that caliber, you've got to expect to be hurt production-wise. He had just put together the best 11 years in history of the game, and he was still in his prime.
"I think we all felt Albert's absence would be felt for a couple of years.
"But you look at them now, they're like a machine."
The Cardinals' rebuilding project - which included hiring manager Mike Matheny to replace Tony La Russa and promoting Derek Lilliquist to replace famed pitching coach Dave Duncan - has been as seamless as going from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno.
The Cardinals called Pujols' agent and signed free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran to a modest two-year, $26 million contract. They turned the first-base job over to Allen Craig. And they used the draft compensation pick from the Angels to select rookie sensation Michael Wacha, who is doing his Bob Gibson impersonation, yielding a 0.43 ERA this postseason.
"I'll tell you right now, Albert's 10-year run with the Cardinals, we'll never see again," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday says. " He was a huge part of our team as far as his consistency and amazing stats. But while he was a huge part of our team, there are a lot of elements to the team that made the Cardinals who they are.
"There's a culture here, but it's the same with Red Sox. These are two very selfless, very team-oriented guys. These are two teams that are all about winning. Nobody is worrying about their own fame and success, it's what do we have to do to win."
The Red Sox, perhaps still lightheaded from those World Series champagne parties, had a temporary loss of memory. They forgot their own identity. They forged into an ugly combination of the New York Yankees and Dodgers, thinking wallet size was more important than heart and soul.
"We knew we weren't who we wanted to be, and that Dodgers trade allowed us to change the whole landscape," said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, who replaced Theo Epstein after the 2011 season. "We might have still been OK without the trade, but we sure would have looked different."
They might look ugly these days, with virtually everyone but the batboys wearing those long, scraggly beards, but they're winning oh, so pretty.
"Our wives don't like it, but like I told my wife, 'You want me to shave it or do you want to win a World Series?'" Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia says.
The beards are staying.
And no matter how robust and full-bodied they might be, nothing can hide their character.
"The best two teams are here, and when we play our games this week, I think everybody will see why," Holliday says.
"We're showing that takes a whole more than just talent."
The shaving cream will have to wait.