The sound of genius hurts the ears. Thwack! It startles like a firecracker going off in a kitchen. Thwack! It is as piercing as a gunshot. Thwack! Inside a low-slung, nondescript brick building in suburban St. Louis one February morning, Albert Pujols inflicts the beautiful violence of his swing upon baseball after baseball sitting on a batting tee, as doomed as a clay pigeon. It is here, in a public batting cage, with a few kids in the back sending up the occasional ping!, that the greatest hitter of his generation attends to the labor of his greatness. To be inside the cage, with Pujols providing the lecture notes, is akin to being inside room 109 of Princeton's Fine Hall in the days of Albert Einstein.
This is an article from the March 26, 2012 issue
"When I'm hitting off the tee like this, I'm getting loose," Pujols says, "but I'm also thinking, Put that perfect swing on it and repeat it."
"See? That's the swing I want to repeat."
Nearly every baseball Pujols hits smacks off the back net into a debris field roughly the size of an archery target. If Pujols were in a baseball park, the balls would be lined through the infield roughly halfway between second base and the second baseman. "See that piece of tape on the back screen?" he says, pointing to a spot about six or seven feet off the ground toward the right side of the net. "I want to hit it about three feet below that. I want to hit it the same height as the pitch."
"See that? See how about halfway there it's almost like it starts to take off? That's backspin. How do I create backspin? Everything comes from the bottom hand. Everybody thinks, Top hand, top hand. If it's top hand, look at this...."
He swings down on the ball, hitting it above its equator, and the ball quickly bites into the ground and bounces away.
"Pulling the bottom hand through the baseball.... Every time you see a perfect swing, the top hand almost looks like it's underneath your bat [at contact]. It's the bottom hand. All the time. That's where backspin comes from. Get your hands inside the ball and let your hands work."
Albert Pujols has the hands of a prizefighter. They are massive, strong and fast. Think of the amount of energy in a cinder block launched at high speed, and you begin to understand the damage Pujols can do with a bat in those hands, which are his defining physical characteristic. Pujols's swing is a technical wonder, a kinetic event that causes the most mayhem with the least effort. But if you had to reduce it to its most astonishing element, it would be this: He brings his hands to the baseball faster and more directly than perhaps any other man who has ever lived.
These are the hands of baseball's Hephaestus. In Greek legend Hephaestus, son of Zeus, kept a workshop in a shimmering palace on Olympus. On his anvil he forged the equipment of gods and men: Hermes' winged helmet, Helios' chariot and Achilles' armor. Pujols too is a blacksmth. Smith comes from a Middle English word meaning to forge or smite: to hit. To watch Pujols in the batting cage—the power, the banging, the noise—is to watch smithing done with 32½ ounces of maple.
"What stands out to me," says Cardinals third baseman David Freese, "is that every swing he takes, whether off the tee, soft toss or batting practice, is done with intensity and focus. He's an animal, the way he goes after it. I've never seen anything like it."
On Dec. 8, five weeks before he turned 32 and six weeks after he finished what may have been the best 11-year start in major league history, all of it with St. Louis, Pujols signed as a free agent with the Angels for $240 million over 10 years. He will be paid $30 million in 2021, when he's 41 years old. "He is," Angels owner Arte Moreno says, "the best player in baseball. It was an amazing opportunity for us."
Pujols is this generation's Ted Williams: the hitter's hitter, the undisputed master of the most evolved form of this complex and confounding art. Williams lost three of his prime seasons to World War II, so Pujols is statistically more prolific than Williams was through the season he was 31. Others in baseball history may have hit for a higher average or more contact or more power, but no one at this age besides Pujols has been more accomplished at the entire discipline of hitting.
Pujols, who has hit 445 home runs, is one of only seven players in history with 400 through age 31. Only two of those players hit that many while batting better than .320: Jimmie Foxx (.337) and Pujols (.328). And Pujols did so while striking out 27% less often than any of the others, and in an environment of competition and travel that the sluggers of yesteryear wouldn't recognize. Williams, for example, played until he was 42. He retired having played 544 night games, and faced 268 pitchers on seven teams in 11 ballparks, none west of Kansas City. Pujols has already played 1,110 night games and faced 978 pitchers on 29 teams in 34 ballparks across four time zones.
"Albert Pujols is the greatest hitter of all time," says Lance Berkman, a Cardinals teammate last year. "When you look at what he's been able to do in the modern game—with pitching, modern bullpens, worldwide competition—he's put up numbers nobody else ever did. And he's done it in a park [Busch Stadium] that is very tough on home runs. Believe me, I only hit nine there last year [but] 22 on the road. Gap to gap, you have to crush a ball to get it out."
Says Dave Silvestri, a former major league infielder who for the past three years has thrown batting practice to Pujols during off-season workouts, "He's going to own the alltime RBI record, the alltime doubles record, and he will be the alltime home run king—and he's going to have 3,500 hits. Albert is the best I've ever seen. And nobody is a close second."
Pujols's contract includes bonus payments for reaching 3,000 hits ($3 million) and 763 home runs ($7 million), one more than the record held by Barry Bonds. "I don't think about that," Pujols says. "You put that in your contract because it's part of the negotiations."
What he does think about is the backlash against the length of his contract. Skeptics scoffed at 10 years for a 32-year-old player (with well-worn gossip that he may be older) coming off his worst season. (He hit .299 with 99 RBIs in 2011 and still finished third in the National League in home runs with 37, fifth in total bases with 313 and fifth in the NL MVP voting.) Pujols heard the drumbeat of criticism. And like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who never forgot being passed over 198 times before he was drafted in the sixth round in 2000, Pujols, passed over 401 times before the Cardinals took him in the 13th round in 1999, is motivated by those who doubt him.
"Believe me, I have a chip on my shoulder about this contract," Pujols says, sitting on a stool in that St. Louis batting cage. "It's a new chapter in life. No matter what success I have on this level, there is room to improve. We'll see 10 years from now. I take care of my body pretty well, and I'm confident if I can stay healthy, I can play for 10 years and maybe more than that."
The next 10 at the level you're at now?
He nods. "Or better. We'll see."
When he is done talking—done reminiscing about growing up in the Dominican Republic, recalling the bullets that whizzed past him in a New York City shoot-out, tackling the age issue again and explaining how that meticulously calibrated swing fell apart last season—Pujols rises from his stool, grips his bat in those cinder-block hands and speaks like a man eager to smite.
"Let's take some hacks."
Estadio Quisqueya, with its single horseshoe deck of seating and its awninglike roof, was built in Santo Domingo in 1955 and originally named for Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic's dictator and a baseball aficionado. Almost all the great Dominican baseball stars have passed through Estadio Quisqueya, mostly in winter league ball or off-season workouts. In the 1980s, Pujols's stepfather operated a little store underneath Quisqueya's stands, where he sold sandwiches, soda and beer. As a boy Albert helped his stepfather at the store. One of the perks of the job was early access to the empty ballpark, and Albert would marvel at the batting-practice feats of Raul Mondesi, Sammy Sosa and other Dominican stars as the noise of professional hitting echoed across 14,829 empty seats.
No other hitter, however, was as engrossing to watch as Julio Franco. Every swing seemed to be a merengue in miniature, a dance of flourish and filigree in which the barrel of Franco's bat began pointed at the pitcher, was drawn back and, after a dramatic leg kick, came around in a tight arc, more often than not sending line drives whistling into the rightfield gap—the signature result of what hitters call keeping the hands "inside the ball," or close to the body through the hitting zone.
"I remember me and my friends watching Julio Cesar Franco," Pujols says, smiling at the memory. "Everybody in the D.R. wanted to be like him—staying inside the ball."
Pujols's mother and father divorced when he was three but maintained an amicable relationship. Albert was raised by his grandmother and father in a single-level, three-bedroom, one-bathroom house shared by 10 people. His father, Bienvenido, was a house painter and one of the country's best softball pitchers. Bienvenido had one requirement of his team as it traveled around the D.R.: "If there is not a seat for my son, I won't go." There was always a seat for Albert.
"I used to grab his glove in between games, and he would hit me grounders at shortstop," Pujols says. "I got a couple of teeth knocked out once. I had that fever. I wanted to be like my dad. I wanted to be a baseball player."
At about age 12, Albert joined a youth team in Santo Domingo called the Trinitarios, and he immediately competed with an incumbent shortstop named Rene Rojas, who was a year older. "He was there before me because he was always so responsible, very prompt," Rojas says, remembering one of Albert's first practices. "He was doing well, and I thought, Well, there's my competition. But it didn't last long. We started talking, hanging out. We helped each other. We took grounders together, hit together, went swimming together."
The two of them shared the left side of the infield, alternating at short and third. Albert hit like Franco, with a high leg kick and his hands inside the ball. He also loved to snack on sugarcane and didn't run very well. But one time, on a field without a fence, Albert smacked a drive so far that he was able to run all the way around the bases, reaching home with a headfirst slide. "When he got up," Rojas says, "his face was covered in chalk. We couldn't stop laughing at his white face. He thought we were making fun of his running, but it was because of his face."
Says Pujols, "[Rojas] is my best friend. We were the youngest ones on the team. I think the league we were playing in was better than Rookie ball or even A ball here. That's how competitive it was.
"That's why when I came to the States for high school and college, people didn't believe my age—I was able to mature so early playing against guys who were 15, 16 and 17 years old. When I got here in high school, it was almost like playing with kids. Everything came easy."
Pujols's age, like Ruth's called shot, has been a topic of much debate. According to Pujols, he was 16 in 1996 when his family moved to New York, where one day he happened to be in a bodega when gunfire broke out, sending him sprinting to his apartment in Washington Heights. The family soon moved to Independence, Mo., on the advice of an uncle, who saw better job opportunities there. Pujols graduated from high school in the winter of 1998--99, enrolled at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., and was drafted by St. Louis in June 1999 at the listed age of 19.
Even the Cardinals, according to a team source, weren't sure of his age when they drafted him, or in 2004 when they signed him to a seven-year contract—though they didn't consider it an issue. Offering a 10-year contract to a man whose listed age is 32, however, involves more risk. One general manager not involved in the Pujols bidding last winter said he would have been concerned because he'd heard that in his childhood Pujols "played with Octavio Dotel," the 38-year-old Tigers pitcher who claimed to be 17 but was actually 19 when he signed in 1993.
"Yes, [Dotel] played in the same league but many years before us," Rojas says. "He'd always come back when he was home from the States. He would organize a game between signed players and the most talented players from the league. We were always on Dotel's team or on his brother's. Octavio Dotel was like an idol for us; he was signed from our barrio. By the time Albert arrived on the Trinitarios, Dotel was already signed."
Says Chris Mihlfeld, Pujols's trainer, who has known him since November 1998, "If it comes out that he's older than he says, I'll drop dead like a doornail. That would be the biggest disappointment of my life. He's not going to lie. I'd bet my life on it.
"He's so, so great, everybody thinks it can't be true: It's got to be steroids or age or something. Why can't it be that he is a great baseball player?"
Pujols is nearly done with the hitting session in the St. Louis cage, during which he will have hit 85 balls off a tee or thrown to him by Silvestri. (After one swing, in a baseball reenactment of The Princess and the Pea, he tells Silvestri something isn't right with the ball he just hit. Silvestri fetches it and finds that it's the one ball in the bucket that's not regulation MLB issue.) Meanwhile a visitor has noticed there was something Pujols did not do once in all those swings: hit a ball off the left side of the netting.
Pujols laughs. "If I want to pull the ball, believe me, I can pull it," he says. "But I don't want that."
He sets up the tee on the inside corner. "If I pull that [pitch]?" he says. "That's the 500-foot foul ball. [But] when you stay inside on that ball inside, it's a hard line drive and I keep it fair."
Pujols often drills himself on not pulling the inside pitch. He says, "I can do whatever I want with that ball—hit it the other way or take it back through the middle, which is what I want."
Nothing sets Pujols as far apart from his contemporaries as this one skill. The inside pitch to a big league hitter is the equivalent of ice cream to a child—the mere sight of it causes excitement and invites overindulgence. Hitting a baseball is, basically, turning into the ball on two levels: first the hips and then the upper body. Turn too late on an inside pitch, and you are jammed. Turn too early or too much, and you hook the ball foul. It's known as "coming around the ball," the wicked inverse of staying inside it.
Pujols takes the problems of rotational timing virtually out of the equation because his hands fly so fast and so directly. "As every hitter swings, the front shoulder and torso begin turning away from the ball," Berkman says. "You can't help it. But Albert has the amazing ability to keep his hands on a direct, inside path longer than anybody else."
Says Silvestri, "There's the plate and then there's Albert's plate. Albert has an extra six inches on both sides of the plate. Every now and then I'll miss [with a pitch], and he hits the hell out of it. A full foot off the plate, and he squares it up. And he always backspins a ball that's in. I've never seen anyone else do that."
What in the name of Williams and the Moneyball fashionistas is Pujols doing swinging at bad pitches in practice? Williams titled his magnum opus The Science of Hitting and famously included a color-coded mapping of the strike zone to define the importance of selectivity. If Williams didn't swing, according to umpire legend, the pitch must have been a ball. Over the last decade the Oakland A's, under general manager Billy Beane, popularized the passive-aggressive approach at the plate. But Pujols is too good a hitter to be confined by a rule-book strike zone. He works at hitting whatever he can reach, which means sometimes hitting off a tee extended so high that the ball sits well above the top of the strike zone. It is the taboo pitch for hitters: the high fastball riding out of the zone. Yet Pujols practices drilling it off the back net on a path exactly as high off the ground as where the pitch began.
Why would you even practice swinging at a pitch that's not a strike?
"Because," he says, "there are going to be some times, like an 0--2 count, when pitchers go up there. That's not a strike, but that's actually a pitch I can hit. It allows me to just use my hands—to just throw the head of the bat."
Alexi Ogando of the Rangers picked a 1-and-1 count in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series to try one of those high fastballs against Pujols. It was 96 mph. Pujols drove it 423 feet, slamming it off the facing of the upper deck at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. "It sailed about a hundred feet over my head," says Rangers leftfielder David Murphy, "and I thought, How in the world did he do that?"
The home run was one of Pujols's five hits off five pitchers in a span of six innings in what was the greatest hitting performance in World Series history. Pujols joined Ruth (1926 and '28) and Reggie Jackson (1977) as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game, and he set a Fall Classic record with 14 total bases and tied another with six RBIs. To his fellow craftsmen, however, what he did with the Ogando fastball was the equivalent of forging the armor of Achilles. Said St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday that night, "To not just get that ball but to hit it with backspin and hit it that far is amazing. It's hard to hit a ball that far in BP."
Says Pujols, "The high fastball, when I hit it, it's like, Wow, I didn't even feel it. Why? Because all I did was throw the hands. Sometimes in BP I try to hit the ball as far as I can, and most of the time it's impossible. I can't do it. But when I take a real nice easy swing toward the ball? Man, the ball just goes."
His swing is beautiful in its simplicity. Nothing wasted. All the choreography of Julio Cesar Franco has been rooted out over time. (The leg kick, for one, was pruned in 1999.) Williams's Science of Hitting has begotten Pujols's Physics of Hitting. It is the knockout jab of a boxer or the cascade of a waterfall: power delivered in a direct line.
It does not, however, always work this well.
When spring training began in 2011, Pujols cut off contract negotiations with the Cardinals. The club's last offer had been $198 million over nine years. The $22 million average annual value would not have ranked among the top 10 contracts in history, and it would have placed Pujols third among current first basemen, behind Ryan Howard ($25 million) and Mark Teixeira ($22.5 million). Pujols's preference was to remain in St. Louis, where he still has a home, but suddenly there was reason to doubt it would happen.
"I know that his dealings with the organization affected him a lot," Rojas says. "It's something that didn't make him feel very good.... He didn't want to talk much about it. He would change the subject. But he was also very respectful of the organization, very professional."
Mihlfeld remembered the 18-year-old Pujols of 1998, when the kid first showed up with Deidre, then his fiancée, at Maple Woods, where Mihlfeld was the baseball coach until he took a minor league job with the Dodgers three weeks later. "He was a happy kid all the time—laughing, joking, playing pranks once in a while," Mihlfeld says. "Over the years he has hardened. He takes everything personal. He cares what people think. Last year was a tough time for him."
Thirty-one games into the season, Pujols was batting .233 and had hit into more double plays (10) than he had hit home runs (seven). The contract issue, he said, wasn't the problem. It was his swing. "I can't even do it," he says in February after trying to mimic his swing from last April. "I can't believe I was hitting like that. I'll show you exactly what I mean on my computer."
The next week, in camp with the Angels in Tempe, Pujols grabs his laptop and heads to a picnic bench outside the clubhouse. He has videos of all of his major league at bats, most of them from multiple angles. He can summon them by year and subdivide them by results. He starts clicking. "I can go to '09," he says, "and watch all of my extra-base hits or home runs. See? See the head of the bat, how straight it is? The back side elbow is up, the front elbow is down."
He closes the 2009 file and opens the one from last season, beginning with April. The difference is striking. Pujols's front elbow is higher than the back, causing the head of the bat to be flat, not straight, as he reaches the loaded position, the moment before the swing comes forward.
"See how flat I get it? My bat angle? See how flat it's getting?" He grows more agitated with every 2011 swing he views, even the ones that produced home runs. "And look at my knee."
Pujols's back knee is collapsed in the loaded position, like a broken leg on a tripod. In his normal stance Pujols keeps a strong base with 60% of his weight on his back leg and 40% on the front. But with the collapsed back knee, the weight distribution is reversed. With a flat bat and weakened back leg, Pujols's hips and head drift forward as the bat comes through. The drifting makes him roll over on pitches, causing an inordinate number of ground balls. With the help of video and Rojas—with whom he talks to two or three times a week—Pujols began to identify the problems and make adjustments, though he says, "Even in the World Series my bat was a little flat."
The 2011 season cast Pujols as a player in decline, with his batting average and OPS dropping for a third straight year, albeit marginally and from spectacular heights. But after May 5, Pujols hit .321 with 35 homers and 96 RBIs in 134 games through the postseason, which is fairly typical of a Pujols year.
On the day St. Louis won the World Series, Moreno hired Jerry Dipoto as the Angels' general manager. He instructed Dipoto to meet almost immediately with Danny Lozano, Pujols's agent. Moreno explicitly stipulated that no one else was to know that the Angels were pursuing Pujols. "If we didn't get him signed," Moreno says, "nobody was going to know."
Moreno wanted to be respectful of Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt and the team's long association with such an iconic player. But privately Moreno had been thinking about signing Pujols for months. He viewed Pujols not just as a great hitter for a team that needed offense but also as a once-in-a-generation player. Pujols was too good, Moreno decided, not to pursue. The economics did not scare him, Moreno says, because his club carried no debt, had drawn three million fans for nine consecutive seasons, had no players signed past 2015 other than ace Jered Weaver and had backloaded its local TV deal to run between $10 million and $20 million above its $50 million annual average. Also, unbeknownst to almost everyone, for nearly a year Moreno had known he had a handshake agreement with Fox Sports that would triple his TV haul, to $150 million a year, beginning in 2014. "In a perfect world," Moreno says of his plans to sign Pujols, "it was going to be eight 25s [$25 million per year for eight years]. In a perfect world. I don't think you sign him in a perfect world."
Meanwhile, Pujols's negotiations with St. Louis took a defining turn. After the World Series the Cardinals improved their offer to an average annual value of $26 million. But to increase the yearly money, they cut the length of the offer: five years, $130 million. It puzzled Pujols that the Cardinals wanted him for fewer years than the Angels and the Marlins, who had offered 10 years and $201 million.
"You stay in the game, stay in the game, stay in the game and hope you get to the point where you really have an opportunity," Moreno says. For the Angels, the five-year offer by St. Louis was such an opportunity. On Dec. 6, Moreno, in Tempe, arranged through Lozano to call Pujols at nearly 10 p.m. in St. Louis. "I told my wife, 'We're going to find out if I know how to sell,'" Moreno says.
Says Pujols, "It was a get-to-know-you call."
The next day Moreno and his wife had just sat down for a matinee showing of the movie Melancholia when Lozano called. Moreno sensed the opening. He walked outside. "I want to talk to the player directly," Moreno said.
"Sure. I'll get back to you," the agent said.
"No," Moreno said. "I'll hold while you put the player on this line right now."
A framework of a deal was put in place: 10 years, $240 million, the milestone bonuses and a 10-year, $10 million personal-service contract that kicks in when the first deal ends. Says Pujols, "The second phone call [Moreno] made determined everything. I was still praying about it and asking God to help me with the decision because I got to the point where it was very frustrating. Me and my wife got on our knees. And we feel pretty peaceful about the decision that we made."
Ted Williams played 10 more seasons after he was Pujols's age (two of them interrupted by more military service) and batted .336 with 23 homers per year. Hank Aaron played 11 more seasons after he was Pujols's age and hit .285 with 32 home runs a year. Neither had the advantages of mild California weather or, except for Aaron's final two seasons in Milwaukee, the less strenuous option of being a DH. "There is less of a concern with attrition with Albert," Angels manager Mike Scioscia says, "because of his work ethic, his talent and his health."
Says Mihlfeld, "He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and is constantly improving his nutrition. I think he's driven to show everybody, not just the Cardinals, that this a great deal and he's got a lot left in the tank."
For years Moreno worked hard to position the Angels as a team of greater Los Angeles, not just Orange County. Pujols instantly made them the national brand they'd never been. Immediately their scheduled prime-time national TV appearances tripled. The length of Pujols's commitment to the Angels—20 years—ensures that he will be the face of the franchise. It is a responsibility that he embraces. "Well, I had that responsibility ever since I wore the Cardinals' jersey in 2001," he says. "It's part of my responsibility to play the game the right way and be an example to the community and to kids who look up to me, just like when I was a little boy and looked up to big league players. I know how many kids out there want to be like Albert Pujols."
On the first day Pujols worked out in an Angels uniform, in Arizona, Mihlfeld watched the first baseman field ground balls and take batting practice under brilliant sunshine. The trainer saw something he hadn't seen in years: the happy kid from back in Maple Woods. It was unmistakable even from a distance. Berkman, a teammate with Pujols last season only, had come to regard his hardened manner (the only thing more arresting than Pujols's grip is his do-not-disturb face at work) as an asset. But with an unpleasant free agency behind him and new challenges in front of him, Pujols has a new bounce in his step, not just because he's lost 10 pounds since the World Series.
"When the external motivators become new, you get reinvigorated," says Berkman, the NL Comeback Player of the Year in '11 after 12 years in Houston and a brief stint with the Yankees. "New team, new city, new purpose. I lived it. I would bet you're going to see a resurgence from Albert over the next couple of years."
There is something else at work here, something that was visible at that cage inside the brick building in suburban St. Louis this winter. It is the simplicity of that swing, a swing that hitting coaches around baseball use as a template. Just last year Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, while trying to tame the hand movement in the swing of struggling young outfielder Peter Bourjos, conjured the Pujols Swing as the how-to guide. "I always use Pujols," says Hatcher. "The biggest thing you do as a hitting coach is get your hitters to slow down. Pujols is quiet. I think that's why he's so consistent. Even the drills he does—his philosophy is very simple."
"I love the tee," Pujols says. "It's better than soft toss to get me prepared. What I find with soft toss sometimes is they throw you one ball down the middle, one ball down, one ball up. But to build a quality swing you want to build it off the tee because the ball isn't moving. You can't blame that guy who's throwing to you. You only blame yourself."
Over the winter, hammering away atop his anvil, Pujols found that swing again. "I feel awesome, I'm telling you," he says. "It looks like the old me. When you take 50,000 swings a year, you know your swing."
And which swing stored in those yearly files on his laptop is his own template? Which model year?
"Oh-nine... '10...." Then he laughs at himself and surrenders to the obvious.
"Oh-one to 2010. Any one. Hopefully I take it into the season."
The work continues. It is always about the next swing, not the next 10 years. Albert Pujols will keep trying to forge that perfect swing, to repeat it as many times as he can. And he will come as close to a hitting state of grace as has any man.