In praise of Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols had played one season of professional baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals invited him to Spring Training in 2001. One thing was certain: He was not going to make the team.

First, the Cardinals were loaded.

Second, Pujols had played three games above Class A ball.

While the Cardinals loved the kid, they simply didn’t believe it would be fair to throw him right to the wolves. At the time, teams believed that rushing a player through the minors could permanently harm his career.

And then Pujols began hitting line drives.

He sprayed them all over the field. His swing was disciplined, his strength and speed incredible. There was a seriousness about him that impressed everyone.

And the work ethic?

He was relentless in the batting cage and the weight room and on the field. Even now when you ask teammates about Pujols, they mention many of the same things:

  • They’ve never seen anyone work harder. If you show up in the Angels clubhouse around 5 p.m. or so, you might find Pujols covered in sweat, having just taken swing after swing in the indoor batting cage.
  • His swing is so precise that he almost never lunges or looks uncomfortable. It’s as if he controls at-bats the moment he steps into the box.

Back to that first spring with the Cardinals. Right in those first days, Tony La Russa realized he had a player who had both talent and a burning desire to maximize that talent.

At some point during spring training Mark McGwire told La Russa, “If you send him back to the minors, it’ll be one of the worst mistakes you’ve ever made.”

Still, until Bobby Bonilla got hurt, it looked like the Cardinals would send him back down. The Cardinals adamantly say this is not so, that Pujols made the club on his own.

I tend to trust the later. I remember standing behind a batting cage with La Russa that spring and watching Pujols hit. In perhaps the highest compliment one manager has ever paid one of his players, La Russa just stood there and watched.

When I asked a question or two, he just nodded toward the cage. We were both seeing one of those guys who comes along every generation or so.

Fourteen years later, Pujols, 35, is on his way to the Hall of Fame. He has slowed down some in recent years thanks to an assortment of leg injuries.

At times, it has been painful to watch him run the bases. But it has been a joy to watch him swing the bat. That swing may not be as feared as it once was, but it’s still a thing of beauty.

He’s now 16th on the all-time home run list with 537 and 30th on the all-time RBI list with 1,635. His .9878 OPS is the ninth-highest of all-time. Pujols is also a nine-time All-Star, a two-time World Series winner and a three-time MVP.

In his 15th season, Pujols has taken a backseat to Mike Trout in terms of numbers and awards. But his .852 OPS is his highest in three years and still commands respect from teammates and opponents alike. It remains a joy to watch him play.

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