Albert Pujols's elbow could use Tommy John surgery. But until it's absolutely necessary, he'll keep raking, thank you
This is an article from the April 14, 2008 issue
ALBERT PUJOLS sits in a tiny room adjacent to the Cardinals' clubhouse with his arms extended, forearms up, as if he's preparing to donate blood. "Right now I can stretch my right arm out, but if you compare it to my left, you can see it's a little different," he says. And it's true. While he can extend his left arm fully, his right remains bent slightly at the elbow. "Last year it was like this," he says as he bends the arm to a 30-degree angle. "It was a really tough year. I don't know if my body can take the pain that I played with last year again. I don't think so."
The 28-year-old Pujols has dealt with varying degrees of discomfort in his right elbow ever since he injured it during a throw from leftfield in April 2003. He has a high-grade tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, in addition to bone spurs, arthritis and inflammation in the joint. If he were a pitcher, he would have undergone Tommy John surgery to replace the ligament long ago. But since he plays first base—a move necessitated by the injury—and does not have to throw particularly often, or particularly far, he has been able to avoid the knife.
The pain was particularly acute last season. In May, Pujols took an awkward swing on a cold day at Wrigley Field and felt what he calls "a little pull." The next morning his elbow was so swollen that the team's medical staff had to drain it, and it tormented him for the next six months. While Pujols played in 158 games and made his fifth straight All-Star appearance, he hit fewer homers (32) and drove in fewer runs (103) than he had in any other season of his seven-year career, and for the first time he finished out of the top four in MVP voting (he came in ninth). A prolific year, to be sure, but the experience made both Pujols and the Cardinals confront a grim possibility.
In December, Pujols was examined by leading orthopedic surgeon James Andrews. "Dr. Andrews said, Here's the situation: It can blow out tomorrow," says Pujols, meaning that the ligament could tear completely on a single throw or swing, requiring surgery and at least an eight-month rehab, "or you could play 20 years without having the procedure."
Since immediate surgery would result in an equally long and arduous rehab, Pujols will take his chances, even in a season that has little promise for an undermanned franchise, its 5--1 start through Sunday notwithstanding. During the off-season he reduced his once-grueling weightlifting regimen in an effort to place less stress on his elbow, and he says that he is experiencing none of the pain that he did last season. His performance reflects that: After a spring training in which he hit five homers in 59 at bats, Pujols reached base in 14 of his first 25 regular-season plate appearances.
"Ten years from now I probably won't be able to move my arm because every year it loses flexibility," Pujols says. "I think the surgery will eventually happen. But right now I'm thinking about the present, and I know that my team needs me. If that means sacrificing my body, I'm going to do it."
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Striking First Week
The rebuilding Royals demonstrated an important—and, for them, long-forgotten—skill last week: throwing strikes. Kansas City walked only nine Tigers in 29 innings in their season-opening sweep, then just four Twins in 25 innings over the weekend. The Royals' 13 total walks and 3.4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio were among the best in the majors' first week. A 2-to-1 rate is the target for any staff, a level K.C. has reached only once since 1989, in '96. That should change this season thanks to a rotation that includes such command specialists as Gil Meche, Brian Bannister (above) and Zach Greinke, and a bullpen that struck out 22 and walked three in the first six games. Improved pitching could push the Royals toward .500 and create excitement about a franchise that has been an afterthought for 15 years.