Search

The Power To Believe

March 16, 2009
March 16, 2009

Table of Contents
March 16, 2009

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
BASEBALL
GOLF
COLLEGE BASKETBALL
  • Why isn't the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference better known? Maybe it's because Louisville's Terrence Williams plays the most underappreciated position in the game

HOCKEY
PRO BASKETBALL
  • For years Nate Robinson was seen as little more than the Knicks' 5'9" slam-dunk novelty act. But after his recent string of 30-point games, height is no longer his defining measure

Mykal Riley
Inside
Departments

The Power To Believe

Albert Pujols is the Best Player in Baseball, and he understands the curse that comes with that title. But the Cardinals' slugger has this message for you: He won't let you down

x

RADIO ANNOUNCER

This is an article from the March 16, 2009 issue

Babe Ruth has just made that same gesture again! With two strikes on him, he pointed to the flagpole in the centerfield bleachers, plainly indicating that's where he means to park that next pitch! (Camera closes in on sick boy sleeping in his hospital bed, his worried parents sitting bedside. Cut back to the Babe at the plate.)

BABE RUTH (to catcher)
Sit down and rest, kid, I'm riding this one out of the park.

CATCHER
Oh, yeah? You and who else?

BABE RUTH
Me and a young pal of mine. (Ruth connects.)

RADIO ANNOUNCER
He did it! It's a home run in the centerfield bleachers ... right where he pointed! (Camera cuts back to sick boy. His eyes open.)

- scene from The Babe Ruth Story

x

 

ALBERT PUJOLS knows that people do not believe him. He does not just know it, he lives it, breathes it, he takes it with him into the batting cage in Jupiter, Fla., on a hazy mosquito day at the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training complex. Pujols stretches out into his familiar batting stance—legs wide apart, bat quivering high above his shoulder, head up in an oddly proud way, like he's a soldier sitting on a horse, like he's posing for posterity. A batting practice pitcher throws, and Pujols rockets hard line drive after hard line drive. People marvel at how much louder and fuller the ball sounds coming off his bat than off the bat of anyone else. That sound used to make heroes. Now, it only cements his guilt in the minds of the most cynical in the great American jury.

This is the uncompromising math of 2009: The more Albert Pujols hits, the less those cynics will believe him.

He will not stop hitting, of course. That is no option. He hit his way out of the Dominican Republic. He hit his way into the American dream. In his eight years in the major leagues, Pujols, still only 29, has never hit less than .314, never hit fewer than 32 home runs, never driven in fewer than 103 runs, never finished out of the Top 10 in the MVP balloting. He is the Best Player in Baseball.

But this is not a great time to be the best anything in baseball. Barry Bonds was the best player, and now he is facing federal perjury charges. Roger Clemens was the best pitcher, and every other day another newspaper story takes him down one more notch. Mark McGwire was the best home run hitter, and after telling Congress that he did not want to talk about the past, he has all but disappeared into a Pynchon-like seclusion. Alex Rodriguez was the best player, and now he tentatively admits guilt while A-ROID! headlines splash and fans heckle and a hip injury shuts him down.

"We're in this era where people want to judge other people," Pujols says. "And that's so sad." He would like to leave it with those three words—that's so sad—but then people might wonder.

So he continues: "But it's like I always say, 'Come and test me. Come and do whatever you want.' Because you know what? There is something more important to me — my relationship with Jesus Christ and caring about others. More than this baseball. This baseball is nothing to me."

He stops cold. He shakes his head. Those words don't do him any good either. This is more of the uncompromising math of 2009: The more he denies, the less people will believe him.

This is the uneasy state of the new baseball hero. Albert Pujols knows he cannot prove to people that he has never used steroids. He knows that there will always be doubters. "Let's say I retire 15 years from now," he says. "They're going to say, 'Well, he probably did it back then. He just didn't get caught.' I know that's what they're going to say. And you know what, man? It is sad, but at the same time, it doesn't matter. I know who I am. I don't care."

Well, this is one answer. He could not worry about any of it. Albert Pujols makes a lot of money. He is the most beloved figure in one of America's best baseball towns. He is putting up baseball numbers that bend the imagination. Yes, he could just go about his business, play ball and leave the hero business to someone else. There's only one problem with that.

"I think deep down he does care," his wife, Dee Dee, says. "He really cares .... He wants to be a hero to people."

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, has been about heroes. Ted Williams went to war — twice — and hit a home run in his last at bat; Hank Aaron hit home runs by night while stuffing the racist letters he received into a shoebox during the day. Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, and Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Cal Ripken played every inning every day. There is a good story about every baseball hero, and the best of those have always involved a child, a home run and a corny ending. Will you hit a home run for me, Babe? Sure I will, kid.

Albert Pujols has a baseball hero story like that. He has just about the most amazing baseball hero story you have ever heard. But does anyone want to hear a baseball hero story these days?

x

Pete's a fan of yours, Roy. He got a scrapbook that's thick fulla pictures of you. Yesterday, they lemme go see him and I said to Pete you'd sock a homer for him in the game tonight. After that he sorta smiled and looked better. They gonna let him listen a little tonight, and I know if you will hit one it will save him.

"What did you say that for?" Roy said bitterly. "The way I am now I couldn't hit the side of a barn."

Holding to Roy's sleeves, Mike Barney fell to his knees. "Please, you gotta do it."

"Get up,"Roy said. He pitied the guy and wanted to help yet was afraid what would happen if he couldn't. He didn't want that responsibility.

—from The Natural, by Bernard Malamud

x

 

THE THING Albert Pujols remembers is the weight. It's a helluva thing to carry your father. Forget the emotional part. First, you have to balance the weight just right.Then you have to walk at a steady pace. And, more than anything, you have to keep going, keep moving, even as the crushing weight of a man twice your size bears down.

Bienvenido Pujols was a great softball pitcher in the Dominican Republic. Albert idolized him; he would wear his father's jerseys around his neighborhood in Santo Domingo. Aftera softball game was over, Bienvenido often stayed around with his friends, had a few drinks. When Bienvenido was done, Albert would drag and carry his father back to the house. Albert was 10 years old.

The memory does not haunt him — Albert Pujols still idolizes his father. Rather, it explains him. "God made me older," Albert says, and this is the defining quality of his life. At every stage, you will find people who marvel (or gripe) about how old Albert Pujols seems. It was that way when he was 18 and he played high school baseball in Independence, Mo., Harry Truman's hometown. Opposing coaches walked Pujols 55 of the 88 times he came to the plate that year. They walked him out of respect, of course, but they also walked him in protest. They did not believe their pitchers should have to throw to a grown man. Albert hit eight homers in the 33 at bats he was given; one of those crashed off a second-story air conditioner some 450 feet from home plate. That did not dissuade anyone from believing Pujols was older than 18.

"It wasn't my age," Pujols says. "It was the way I grew up." An only child, he was primarily raised by his grandmother America Pujols and by 10 uncles and aunts he still calls his brothers and sisters. He grew up on baseball, lived the archetypal life of a Dominican boy. He remembers playing catch with limes, using a glove made from a milk carton, playing in games with players four and five years older.

"Pitchers were throwing 90 miles per hour, 93 miles per hour," he says. "When you're 13 years old, that's not that easy."

Baseball, though, was the easy part. He felt like a man on the baseball diamond. Pujols still talks emotionally about how lonely he felt after he and his father moved to Missouri, where his paternal grandmother had settled, when he was 16. He can still feel the torment of sitting in a classroom across from his English tutor, Portia Stanke — "She didn't know any Spanish, and I didn't know any English," he says — and wishing he were anyplace else in the world.

It wasn't like that on the baseball field. His first day at Fort Osage High, his new baseball coach, David Fry, tried to speak to Pujols using Albert's cousin as interpreter. Pujols says, "I told my cousin, 'Tell him that I am here to play baseball. Let's go play. I'm not here to talk about anything.'"

His rise to the big leagues is now baseball lore. He hit like crazy in high school when pitchers actually gave him a chance— "I put up sick numbers," Pujolssays. "I was a monster" — but he did not even make The Kansas City Star's first-team all-metro baseball team. He went to Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., and in his first game he homered and made an unassisted triple play at shortstop, then his regular position. After a breathtaking 1999 season there (.461 with 22 homers), he did not get drafted until the 13th round by the St. Louis Cardinals that June.

"We all saw Albert about the same way," says Allard Baird, who was then general manager of the Kansas City Royals. "We weren't sure he had a position. He didn't have a great baseball body. We all saw him the same way, and we were all wrong."

They weren't just wrong. They were spectacularly wrong. It isn't as though Pujols made himself into a great player after he signed with the Cardinals. He was a finished product. He was older than his years. He played just one season in the minor leagues, as a third baseman, and he was so overwhelming that at the end of that season the Cardinals jumped him from A ball to Triple A, where he hit .367 in the Pacific Coast League playoffs and was named the postseason MVP. The next spring, he was a non-roster invitee to Cardinals training camp, and he was so impressive that within days manager Tony La Russa was telling St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, "I've never seen anyone quite like him."

In 2001, playing four positions, Pujols had one of the greatest rookie seasons in history. He hit .329 with 47 doubles, 37 homers, 130 RBIs and 112 runs scored. No rookie had put up numbers like that since his Cardinals teammate Mark McGwire did with the Oakland A's more than a decade earlier.

Pujols has been at least as good every year since. He says he judges himself not by his best seasons, but by his worst. The thing is, it's almost impossible to pick Pujols's worst season out of a lineup. Pick any season you want. It's fair to say that Pujols's worst big league season, repeated over an entire career, would get him elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He's like pizza: Even when he's bad, he's good.

It is more than his offense. He has made himself into a defensive marvel. Baseball analyst John Dewan has invented a video-based defensive rating system that breaks down every play a defender makes. Since its creation three years ago, the system has ranked Pujols the best defensive first baseman in the National League in each season.

And it's more than his offense and defense. He runs the bases aggressively and successfully, especially for a man with below-average speed. And he is selfless. When Cardinals third baseman Troy Glaus had to undergo shoulder surgery in January, Pujols went to La Russa and said he would play third base if the team needed him there. "I told him, 'No, that's O.K. I don't think we want to mess with you,'" La Russa says. "But he was absolutely serious. That's the kindof guy Albert is. He would do anything for this team."

Nobody in the sport works harder than Albert Pujols. But, again, playing baseball hasn't been the difficult part.

"I don't want to sound cocky or arrogant, but I was always great at this game," Pujols says. "I was a little disappointed that I got drafted in the 13th round and all that. They can say what they want now, but I always put up the numbers. It doesn't matter. It made me hungry. Everything happens in God's time."

x

"In 1971 I went to Orthopedic Hospital in Los Angeles to visit a boy named Ricky Williams.The boy just had an operation to remove the lower part of a leg, and he was in a bad way. It was a hollow feeling seeing him there on the bed. His mother said, 'Thank you for coming.' The doctors said he had an 18% chance of living. He was heavily sedated.

"I took his small hand in mine. His mother said, 'Ricky, Steve Garvey's here.'

"And I started to feel a little squeeze from that 10-year-old's hand. He started opening his eyes. Although he couldn't talk, when he opened his eyes it also opened mine. I could feel the strength in that little boy's hand. I knew then that Steve Garvey had a place."

—Steve Garvey, from a 1975 SI story, Born to Be a Dodger

x

IN ST. LOUIS, they still call Stan Musial the Man. Musial signed every autograph. He went to opposing clubhouses to visit pitchers he'd hit with line drives. He helped even opposing hitters with their batting troubles. He smoked under stairwells so kids would not see him (and then, realizing that there were kids under stairwells too, he quit smoking). He was and is, in every way, the Man.

In St. Louis they now call Albert Pujols El Hombre. That translates to the Man.

"Of course, Stan and Albert are a lot alike," says Musial's longtime friend and Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst. "The great ones are all a lot alike. They both love to hit. And they both are good people on and off the field. That matters."

This is where Albert gets emotional. This does matter to him. He believes deeply that God has given him the baseball platform to do good work. He met his wife, Dee Dee, when he was just 18 years old. She thought he was 21—they met in a Kansas City dance club that was for people 21 and older. On their first date he admitted being only 18. She said that she had a baby daughter, Isabella, who had been born with Down syndrome. He was in high school, still a ways from the majors. They fell in love fast.

In those early years, Albert would babysit Isabella while Dee Dee worked one of her three jobs. She got him a job in a pizzeria, and he would dutifully give her every penny he made. When Pujols was drafted so low, he briefly considered giving up baseball and getting a job so he could help support Dee Dee and Isabella. After his one season in the minors, he got a part-time catering job at a Kansas City-area country club. "We didn't have any money," Albert says."It was hard." They spent $150 on their wedding. Their honeymoon was in Peoria, Albert's first minor league stop.

Of course, this is a common tale—the story of a young couple trying to make it in baseball — but what strikes Dee Dee is how Albert seemed entirely driven to be something more than just a baseball star. He did not drink. He would not even be in the same room as a smoker. He did not get tattoos. He never wore an earring. He wasn't interested in going out with the boys. He played baseball, and he went to church, and that seemed about all that interested him.

"I make fun of him all the time," Dee Dee says. "It's like he's as pure a guy as you could possibly get."

And that's why she really wants people to believe in her husband. Like she believes in him. Last year, Pujols won the Roberto Clemente Award, which is given to the major league player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball." Clemente, of course, died in a plane crash in 1972 while bringing supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua. Pujols, a two-time National League MVP, says it is the most meaningful award he has ever won, and in his speech he said that if he could ask one question of the great Clemente, it would not be about his brilliant arm, or how he paved the way for Latin American players, or even about his prodigious hitting. No, Pujols said, his one question would be,"Why did you go?"

And Pujols said,"I think I know the answer. He felt a responsibility. I feel that responsibility too."

Together, through the Pujols Family Foundation, Albert and Dee Dee have worked to raise money and the spirits of people with Down syndrome. Together, they have brought eye doctors and dentists and beds to villages in the Dominican Republic—Dee Dee remembers presenting beds to a mother of five who had been sleeping on straw and filth, and the tears in the woman's eyes because she had never been given something new. She remembers the tears in Albert's eyes too.

"If he ever got involved in that [steroid] stuff, I would be the first one to kill him," Dee Dee says suddenly.

She would not be the only one to be broken hearted. Albert Pujols knows this. It is why he felt so betrayed when a local television station sent a crew to his St. Louis restaurant to follow up on the charge that Pujols was named in baseball's Mitchell Report, the findings of a 20-month-long investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. Pujols's name was, in fact, not in the report. "They tried to ruin my image," he says.

He has constantly denied using steroids. His reasoning has stayed consistent: "I fear God too much to do any stupid thing like that." He also knows that more or less every player has denied using steroids. "We are under a dark cloud," hesays. "Nobody believes anything [players say]."

And that takes us all the way back to the point: Albert Pujols knows that people, many people, do not believe him. He knows that some bloggers out there simply assume that he has been using — if you Google "Albert Pujols" and "steroids" you will get about 100,000 hits — and he knows that talk-radio hosts have spent time breaking down his 6'3", 230-pound physique. He knows that by putting up good numbers, he gives many people all the evidence they need.

So how can you be a baseball hero in 2009?

"You know how I want people to remember me?" Pujols asks. "I don't want to be remembered as the best baseball player ever. I want to be remembered as a great guy who loved the Lord, loved to serve the community and who gave back. That's the guy I want to be remembered as when I'm done wearing this uniform. That's from the bottom of my heart."

x

KRAMER: It's about a little boy in a hospital. I was wondering if you could do something to lift his spirits.

PAUL O'NEILL: Sure, I could help you there.

KRAMER: Sure, well, I promised you would hit him two home runs.

O'NEILL: Say what?

KRAMER: You know. A couple of dingers.

O'NEILL: You promised a kid in the hospital that I would hit two home runs?

KRAMER: Yeah. Well, no good?

O'NEILL: Yeah, that's no good. It's terrible. You don't hit home runs like that. It's hard to hit home runs. And where the heck did you get two from?

KRAMER: Two is better than one — scene from Seinfeld

x

SO HERE'S that amazing Albert Pujols baseball hero story. Every year in St. Louis, there is a Buddy Walk to raise money and awareness for the National Down Syndrome Society. Pujols is the chairman of the St. Louis Buddy Walk, and every so often, as he fulfills his duties, a child with Down syndrome will ask him to hit a home run. Actually, kids ask him just about every year.

In 2002, 10-year-old Kathleen Mertz threw out the first pitch to Pujols on Buddy Walk Day. As he walked over to give her the signed ball, she said, "Hey, Albert, hit me a home run."

In the first inning he blasted a long homer off Houston's Kirk Saarloos.

In 2003 Niki Cunningham threw out the first pitch on Buddy Walk Day. Of course, she also asked Albert to hit her a home run. In the 13th inning Pujols crushed a walk-off dinger against Florida's Dan Miceli.

In 2006 Pujols found himself swamped with home run requests as he strolled with the crowd during the Buddy Walk. One after another, kids shouted at him, "Hey, Albert, hit a home run for me." "You're my hero." "You've got to hit a homer for me, El Hombre." That night, he faced Pittsburgh's Ian Snell, and Pujols did not waste any time. He hit a home run in the first inning. Then, in the third inning, he faced Snell again, and he hit another. In the fifth inning, he faced Snell one more time. And he homered again — Pujols drilled this one about 450 feet.

"I thought it was going to hit the St. Louis Arch out there," Snell said to reporters after the game. "I wanted to go high-five him. That's unreal. That's like Superman playing baseball."

Pujols knows that he cannot make people believe him. It is like Dee Dee says: "People just have to make up their own minds."

Last year, Buddy Walk was on a Sunday afternoon in September. The Cardinals were out of the race. It was a perfect day for La Russa to give Pujols a rest. That's exactly what La Russa had done on Buddy Walk Day the year before. This time, though, LaRussa saw all the families walking around the stadium before the game, and he knew that Pujols had to play. He had a feeling too.

"The guy can do anything," La Russa says.

So what happened? What do you think happened? First inning, Albert Pujols hit another home run for another child on another Buddy Day. Of course he did. He has now hit six home runs for children. That has to be a big league record. There are things we do not know about Pujols, things we cannot know, but the question really is this: How much fun is it if you cannot believe?

NOW ON SI.COM

BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILY ANALYSIS.

SPRING CLASSIC
Complete daily coverage of the World Baseball Classic from Tom Verducci, plusdaily digital postcards from all 30 spring training sites.

SI.COM/MAGAZINE

PHOTO Photograph by Howard Schatz CRUSHING As the game absorbs more blows about top players' steroid use, Pujols knows his performance will become a lightning rod.PHOTODANIEL R. HARRIS/ICON SMI POWERFUL STATEMENT Even Pujols's worst season, if repeated over a career, would make him a surefire Hall of Famer.PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES TRUE BELIEVER Dee Dee Pujols says her man wants to be a hero.PHOTO HEINZ KLUETMEIER FAVE 5 Pujols's solid all-around game extends to the dugout, where his teammates revere him.PHOTOKENA BETANCUR/AP SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR A-Rod was the only player who belonged with Pujols in the discussion of who's the game's best.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO RED BIRD WITH A CAUSE Pujols has rewarded his hometown Buddies with tireless devotion and even homers seemingly summoned on demand.PHOTOBILL GREEN BLATT/UPI[See caption above]FOUR PHOTOS