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Albert The Great Cardinals slugger ALBERT PUJOLS has emerged as the game's top offensive threat and launched an early bid for the first Triple Crown in 36 years

June 30, 2003
June 30, 2003

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June 30, 2003

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Albert The Great Cardinals slugger ALBERT PUJOLS has emerged as the game's top offensive threat and launched an early bid for the first Triple Crown in 36 years

On a shelf in Albert Pujols's locker at Busch Stadium sits a
ceramic baseball. It bears a verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." The
ball was a gift from Pujols's wife, Dee Dee, a keepsake she
bought at a Christian bookstore in St. Louis. It is not so much
an inspiration as it is a commentary on the man who looks at it
before every home game. "He thinks about his game so much that
sometimes when he's stressed or frustrated, he walks around with
that [downcast] feeling," Dee Dee says. "I always remind
him, as long as he's giving his best, what else can he do?"

This is an article from the June 30, 2003 issue Original Layout

Dee Dee's single-minded husband seems to be constantly finding
new answers to her rhetorical question. After an unprecedented
start to his career--at 21 and 22 Pujols became the first player
in major league history to bat .300 with 30 home runs, 100 runs
and 100 RBIs in each of his first two seasons--the Cardinals'
leftfielder has, amazingly, improved in this, his third year. At
week's end he led the National League in batting average (.384),
RBIs (66) and slugging percentage (.720) and was third in home
runs (21) and on-base percentage (.448). In 20 games since June
1, Pujols had batted .440 with six home runs and 22 RBIs, a tear
that prompted talk of baseball's first Triple Crown since the
Boston Red Sox' Carl Yastrzemski accomplished the feat in 1967.

The runner-up to the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds for NL MVP
last season, the 6'3", 225-pound Pujols has made a strong case at
the season's midpoint that he has eclipsed Bonds as the game's
most productive offensive player. The website
baseball-reference.com, which uses sabermetrician Bill James's
Similarity Scores Index to compare players at the same age in
their careers, lists Joe DiMaggio as Pujols's closest statistical
parallel. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, a veteran of 24 big
league seasons who has had the likes of Mark McGwire and Rickey
Henderson on his rosters, recently anointed Pujols the best
player he has managed.

Pujols displays an uncommon maturity that amazes his more veteran
teammates (and has led to speculation, never confirmed, that
Pujols is older than his stated age of 23). "There are guys who
have been here six, seven years who are still searching, still
grinding out at bats," says Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen,
"while Albert is waiting for the pitch he wants to drive, and
he's getting it. The most impressive thing about him is his
awareness of where his bat head is. He gets it on almost every
pitch." As Rolen speaks, first baseman Tino Martinez walks in
from the showers and sits at an adjacent locker, listening in.
"We're talking about Simontacchi," Rolen says with a smile to
Martinez, gesturing toward righthander Jason Simontacchi.
Martinez shakes his head. "I know exactly who you're talking
about."

Pujols has exceptional hand speed and bat control. During the
off-season he uses weight machines and dumbbells to strengthen
his forearms. Fifteen minutes before most games, he retreats to
an indoor cage with his personal tee and goes through drills that
he picked up from the Texas Rangers' Alex Rodriguez. "They help
me out, especially when I'm jumping at the ball," Pujols says.
"They just remind me to stay back, use my hands and stay inside
the ball." The righthanded-hitting Pujols covers the entire plate
and often drives the ball harder to the opposite field than he
does when pulling it, a sign of a disciplined and patient hitter.
Against lefthanders Pujols hits with a 33-ounce bat, an ounce
heavier than the one he swings against righties, to keep him from
always trying to pull the ball. He rarely strikes out; he has
half as many career home runs as whiffs (92 versus 188 through
Sunday), a stellar ratio similar to that of Bonds (633 versus
1,361), the modern epitome of selectivity combined with power.
"Lefthander, righthander, soft thrower, power guy, fastballs
away, fastballs in--he doesn't have any holes," says Martinez.
"It's a long season, with a lot of at bats, and it's hard to stay
focused and not give any away, yet I can count on one hand the
number of at bats he's given away."

But Pujols is much more than a hitter. The versatility he has
displayed in the field--he played the outfield, first base and
third base as a rookie--helped land him a roster spot on Opening
Day 2001, though last year's additions of Rolen and Martinez have
kept him almost exclusively in leftfield. And Pujols continues to
show remarkable instincts. "A couple of weeks ago we're down two
runs in the eighth, first and third, and Albert hits a double in
the gap to score a run," La Russa says. "J.D. Drew tries to score
from first, and Albert is going to second. As soon as he sees the
shortstop's throw being high all the way to the plate, he hauls
ass to third. Now if J.D.'s safe [which he wasn't], we're tied
and Albert is the go-ahead run on third with one out. To take
third on that play and put us in position to go ahead was
outstanding baseball."

A 13th-round pick of the Cardinals in the 1999 draft, Pujols had
emigrated from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic at 16 with
his father, Bienvenido, stopping in New York City for a month
before settling in Independence, Mo., where several aunts and
uncles had moved and were working as school bus drivers. He
enrolled at Fort Osage High as a sophomore but spoke little
English and required daily one-on-one lessons. "Language was
Albert's biggest barrier," says Dave Fry, Pujols's coach at Fort
Osage. "He had trouble understanding when you explained rules and
regulations to him. But he loved the baseball. You could get
anything about baseball through to him--how to move his hands
when he hit, where to set his feet when he was fielding."

Those who watched Pujols's amateur career remember the almost
mythical highlights: the home run he smashed at Liberty (Mo.)
High, which went over the 402-foot fence in centerfield and off
an air conditioning unit atop a two-story building; the drive he
sent over the leftfield wall at Highland (Kans.) Community
College, which sailed across a street and over a tree. "Every
time we go on a road trip, coaches still talk about tape-measure
shots Albert hit," says Marty Kilgore, his coach at Maple Woods
Community College in Kansas City, Mo., where Pujols matriculated
in '99. "A ball he hit into somebody's backyard, over somebody's
house, they're still fresh in the mind. One of his first games
with us, he crushed a ball into a 30-mile-per-hour wind and only
got a triple out of it. When he got to third base, he was pretty
mad about it. He didn't think the wind should have mattered."

During his senior year at Fort Osage, Pujols met Dee Dee at a
salsa club in Kansas City. After the two danced, Albert surprised
Dee Dee by asking for her phone number. He confessed that he was
only 18 and had fibbed to get into the 21-and-over establishment.
On their first date Dee Dee made an admission of her own: She had
an infant daughter, Bella; soon after, she told Albert that Bella
had Down's syndrome. Fearful that he would misunderstand Bella's
condition, Dee Dee gave him Spanish-language pamphlets explaining
the disorder. "I don't want people to have the reaction that I
have a retarded daughter," Dee Dee says. "Albert didn't even care
[about Bella's condition]. It's almost like he was more attracted
to her." Says Albert, "I was so in love with my wife, it was
gonna be her and that was it, no matter if she had two kids or no
kids. I look at Bella now, and she's so special to me."

Albert and Dee Dee moved in together after he graduated early
from Fort Osage and married on New Year's Day, 2000--"so he
wouldn't forget the date," she says. But in the early years of
their marriage, in particular during Pujols's rookie year with
St. Louis, when the couple's second child, Alberto Jr., was an
infant, Pujols was so preoccupied with baseball that family life
was sometimes secondary. "That year Albert was so focused on
baseball, he thought that just being in the house was spending
time with the kids," Dee Dee says. "I would tell him, 'You have
to interact with them,' but he'd never had to do that before, so
how would he know? I had to tell him so many times to read a book
to the kids, and now I walk by the bedroom, and there he is,
reading to them."

Bella, now 5 1/2 , and A.J., 2 1/2, are at similar levels of
development, and they've become especially close. "Her speech is
coming around great," Pujols says of his daughter. "It's better
than what we expected. My son is helping her out; he's talking so
much to us, and she wants to be just like him."

His increased focus on family life has not distracted Pujols from
his job. "He's amazing to watch," says Cardinals catcher Mike
Matheny, who works out daily with Pujols during the off-season.
Matheny and Pujols, along with Seattle Mariners rightfielder John
Mabry, meet around 6:30 each morning during the winter for
conditioning and weightlifting, followed by batting practice.
"I'll hit a couple of balls, and I'll feel like I'm hitting them
pretty well," says Matheny. "Then he'll jump into the cage, and
it will sound like thunder, it's so loud. He deflates me. It's
like we're hitting different balls."

That is a hallmark of Pujols's talent: that without fail, his
peers, by way of praising him, suggest he is playing a different
game. "He gets a fastball thrown at him, and he just flips the
ball--hits a line drive out of the park the other way," Matheny
says, "and the next at bat, he might drag a bunt. It's like
Wiffle ball to him. I wonder if he knows how difficult it is for
the rest of us."

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [T of C] PHAT ALBERT Pujols might have his sights set on the Triple Crown.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO ON A TEAR Pujols leads the majors in hitting, and since June 1 he has batted an eye-popping .440.COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT ROVAK EVERY WHICH WAY Pujols routinely drives dingers to all fields and frustrates pitchers who can't find his weak spot.COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT ROVAK FAMILY MAN Pujols, with (from left) Dee Dee, Bella and Alberto Jr., is learning the responsibilities of being a father.
La Russa, whose rosters have included McGwire and Henderson,
calls Pujols THE BEST PLAYER HE HAS MANAGED.