By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Pujols: The game’s best player
Pujols stood in the fungo circle adjacent to the cage during pre-game batting practice. Momentarily bored, El Hombre picked up a ball, flipped it into the air and wailed away with his “bone-rubbed” Marucci AP5-A bat.
Launched only by Pujols’ strength, the pelota soared to center field and kept arcing upward. Cardinals and Brewers players alike paused to watch as the ball easily scaled the center field wall 400 feet away and kept screaming, to be interrupted only by the monstrous stadium matrix.
“Amazing,” catcher Yadier Molina remembered earlier this week. “I’ve seen himfive years now. There’s a lot that is amazing.”
Pujols reaches his ninth major-league season as prolific author of the unlikely. He also enters Monday afternoon’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates a historical curio: a first baseman recognized as the game’s best player.
“It’s simple. I don’t think there’s any question,” insists Baltimore Orioles manager Dave Trembley. “He’s the best player in the game, not only for his tools, but what he does for the team. He carries the team. He helps them win. He can turn a game around with his bat, his glove and the way he runs the bases. I don’t think anybody — anybody — wants to face him with the game on the line.”
“He has always been this good physically,” Molina.says “Mentally, he gets better and better. He sees so much about the game. He understands, and he’s always willing to help.”
Since the Cardinals last played, circumstance has elevated Pujols. He scored the Roberto Clemente Award for public service during the World Series, was named National League MVP for the second time a month later and watched as scandal took down New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez in February.
No one need ask, “Where Have You Gone, Albert Pujols?”
He is still hitting third, playing a Gold Glove first base, and remains untouched by five years of performance-enhancing sleaze that has left everyone “playing in the dark cloud around this game.”
Is Pujols the best player?
“I don’t think there’s any doubt where he stands,” New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel says. “From what I know of him as an opposing manager and what little relationship I have with him, the man seems as good as the player. It adds up to be a superstar, and that’s what he is.”
IN THE BEGINNING Jose Alberto Pujols came to America at 15 unable to speak English. But he became more than functional in three months, thanks to tutorials from a teacher who spoke no Spanish.
Long before he became El Hombre, Pujols was a thick-legged shortstop who smoked a 550-foot crank atop Fort Osage High but failed to “project” for many scouts.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays insulted Pujols by once asking him to try out as a catcher.
The long-suffering Kansas City Royals whiffed on Pujols even though he lived and played in nearby Independence.
Some scouts thought Pujols ungainly. Indeed, the first time a Cardinals cross-checker watched him play, Pujols struck out in one at-bat and tripped over first base hustling out a ground ball in the next.
Others disbelieved Pujols’ age, a common suspicion of Dominican-born players that still riles him.
The Cardinals eventually selected Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft with the 402nd overall pick.
“A lot of people thought I would never be here, much less do some of the things I’ve been blessed to do,” Pujols says. “But that’s OK. I was too heavy, I didn’t have a position, all that stuff. I love proving those people wrong. I want to keep hearing what I can’t do. It motivates me, because I know God has given me the ability to do special things.”
Pujols knew he carried the stigma of a “minus” defender before moving to first base. That was before winning a Gold Glove in his third year at the position, an honor he attributes largely to third-base and infield coach Jose Oquendo. He has become a maestro at the short-hop pick and loves ranging to his right.
“Albert is going to get whatever he can get to. You’re there to pick up the rest,” former Cardinals infielder Aaron Miles explained last season.
The last two years have simultaneously elevated Pujols and exposed some of his most accomplished fellow union members.
A multi-count 2007 federal indictment shoved all-time home run king Barry Bonds into de facto retirement. Rodriguez was spared legal entanglements, suffering only public humiliation. Pujols, meanwhile, won the Clemente Award, an honor he values more than his MVP bling.
“It’s part of my life,” Pujols says of his commitment to his Pujols Family Foundation, his work with Down syndrome organizations and his annual pilgrimages to the Dominican Republic.
No one since 1949 has produced more than Pujols’ 977 RBIs in his first eight major-league seasons.
Only one man, Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, produced more home runs (329) than Pujols (319) in the same span. He has eight consecutive seasons of 30 or more home runs; no one else in the game’s history opened his career with more than four such seasons.
Only two men, Hall of Famers Al Simmons and Ted Williams, can match Pujols’ distinction of eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons to open a career.
Voted 2001 NL Rookie of the Year as a third baseman before transferring to left field in 2002-03, Pujols stands as one of only four players to win multiple MVPs at first base and the only one to do so in the NL. Jimmie Foxx (1932-33, 1938), Lou Gehrig (1927, 1936) and defensively suspect Frank Thomas (1993-94) make up the rest of the club. (Of Stan Musial’s three MVPs, only the ’46 award came with The Man at first base.)
“He never stops,” remarks Trembley, whose impression is galvanized every spring. “You see him take flips from (hitting coach) Hal (McRae) before the game. Then he takes batting practice. Then he goes behind the stadium and hits some more in the cage. He’s never satisfied, you can tell.”
Offered Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker, who said he could not remember a first baseman who enjoyed status as the game’s best player: “I’ve told people the first five-tool first baseman to play for me was Derrek Lee. He could rake. He could run. He could pick it at first. Albert can do all those things, too. You’ve got to watch him because he can ‘sneak steal’ on you. But most of the time, you’re going to think the best player in the game is a shortstop or outfielder, who is forced to do everything.”
Pujols’ consistency may be the only attribute to outstrip his dominance. He is positioned to become the only player in NL history besides Rogers Hornsby to lead in all three Triple Crown categories — batting average, home runs and RBIs — for an entire decade. Beginning in 2001, Pujols’ cumulative .334 average easily bests Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton’s .326 mark. He has 41 more home runs than the Washington Nationals’ Adam Dunn and 98 more RBIs than Houston Astros first baseman Lance Berkman.
Last season both underscored Pujols’ abilities and the fact his availability is literally held together by a strand. Pujols made his MVP push by hitting 16 home runs with 49 RBIs after July. He was NL Player of the Week twice in the schedule’s final 36 days. All the while, he experienced tingling and numbness in his right ring finger and pinkie due to an ulnar nerve that team orthopedic Dr. George Paletta transposed on Oct. 13.
‘PEOPLE LIKE TO JUDGE’
El Hombre remembers. He remembers it all.
He recalls those who dismissed his talents 10 years ago just as he hasn’t let go of those who several times have erroneously linked him to the game’s steroid scandal.
“I know that it’s part of this game: People like to judge,” Pujols says. “They try to hurt your image. They say this and that and to them it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. They say, ‘Well, he didn’t get caught.’ It happens a lot. It’s happened to me. That’s one reason it’s very hard to trust people around this game. They say or write what they want, whether it’s true or not.”
Come test me, he says. Come watch me train.
Numerous publications have sent reporters to the Dominican Republic to investigate Pujols’ age, though his documentation passed muster for him to gain U.S. citizenship in 2005.
Various reports connected him to the so-called Grimsley Report in June 2006 and the Mitchell Report in December 2007. Neither proved true.
“Why would I lie?” Pujols says. “I don’t play this game for money, for my family or for fans. I play to glorify God because of the talent He has given me. Maybe some people don’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. What you do eventually will come into the light. So why should I lie now for the truth to come out in a month, a year or five years?”
If he now shoulders more responsibility because of his status, Pujols insists he does not feel its weight.
“My responsibility has been the same since my first day as a pro,” he says. “My first responsibility is to represent God. … I fear God too much to do anything stupid in the game. What else do I have to accomplish? What else do I need to do in the game? If I can stay healthy, I can accomplish what I want: to keep on winning and to one day reach the Hall of Fame.”
Pujols is two years shy of the minimum 10 major-league seasons to one day become eligible for induction. Other questions are more self-evident.
So can a first baseman be the best player in the game?
“I’d have to say yes,” deadpanned Pujols’ manager, Tony La Russa, “because that’s been the case the last two years.”