It begins with a slow waggle of the right elbow, a scowl and pursed lips -- the promise of contact, the imminence of eruption. Then there is the quick whip of the bat, the instant of impact and the follow-through, left arm extended with a flourish. The beauty of Pujols's swing resides in the powerful grace of its unfurling.
But quiet. Like all artisans, hitters have a language specific to their craft. Those who are struggling at the plate are maybe rolling over or pulling off, jumping or cheating. The far smaller number who are confidently stroking hits are staying inside the ball, seeing it deep; their swings are quiet. Yadier Molina, the St. Louis Cardinals catcher, and for the past three seasons Pujols's hitting protégé, does not easily articulate what Pujols has taught him, but he works around to this: "Just try to be quiet. Don't mess, don't get pulled around moving your head, don't go like this" -- Molina shuffles his hands on the handle of an imaginary bat, jerks his shoulders, wriggles in discomfort -- "just, quiet."
Pujols's righthanded swing is flawless and invariable, even from season to season. Asked if he's changed anything over the years, Pujols smiles and offers, in the manner of a man recalling with faint nostalgia a foible of his youth, "I used to high-kick with my front foot, in '98 or '99." At 26, he has far surpassed Barry Bonds as the game's best player. Having batted over .300 with more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in each of the first five seasons of his career, Pujols has announced himself as the sport's greatest all-around hitter since Ted Williams. The Dominican Republic native hit a record 14 home runs in April, and through Sunday he had 19 homers in the Cardinals' first 38 games, which qualifies as the hottest start for a long-ball hitter in the game's history. He also led the majors with 48 RBIs, 39 runs and an .833 slugging percentage. Predictably, he had walked in one fifth of his plate appearances as well. He even plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base, his fifth major league position. But it is the swing -- simple, pruned of all nonessentials, and embedded in his muscle memory -- that is remarkable.
"He has the ability to repeat his swing over and over and over, which leads to him being very consistent," says Chad Blair, the Cardinals' video coordinator, who has taped and charted every pitch of every one of Pujols's major league at bats. "The adjustments he makes are tiny, minute. To take that approach for 700 at bats, to have his swing that fine-tuned, is amazing." Blair laughs and adds, "That, coupled with a burning desire to be the baddest man on the planet swinging a bat for a living."
Chris Mihlfeld's gym squats in a business park at the end of a cul-de-sac in Pleasant Valley, Missouri, a 15-minute drive north of Kansas City. It is a nondescript warehouse, two stories high, anonymous behind gray aluminum siding. The park's other occupants include a day-care center, a landscaper, a gymnastics studio and a flooring contractor. On this pitiless February morning two weeks before the start of spring training, the sky void of color and the grass framing the parking lot a faded ocher, Mihlfeld arrives a little after nine o'clock and turns on the heat. Melting ice drips from the skylights into a small puddle on the artificial turf below. "Only when the heat first comes on," he explains.
Mihlfeld, 37, trains a handful of professional ballplayers, the Kansas City Royals' Mike Sweeney among them, but he has known Pujols for the better part of a decade, since signing the 18-year-old to play for him at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City. Mihlfeld's thick, compact build, with shaved head and barrel chest, suggest a cannonball; though far too modest to volunteer this, he won a Division II wrestling championship in 1991 while at Central Missouri State. Pujols arrives punctually at 9:30, his five-year-old son, A.J., bouncing alongside. The 6'3", 225-pound first baseman looks a little weary and heavy-eyed. "Sophia had a bellyache last night," he says to Mihlfeld. Born last November, Sophia is Pujols's youngest child. (His wife, Deidre, has an eight-year-old daughter, Bella, from a previous relationship, whom Pujols has adopted.) Mihlfeld nods; he has an infant child as well.
It is only with Pujols's help that Mihlfeld has been able to lease and outfit the place. It's equipped with a half-dozen Nautilus machines, two racks of free weights and four batting cages. It allows the pair to train in private but also permits Mihlfeld -- like his employer a devout, serious man (Pujols calls him "my best friend, almost my brother") -- to work close to his family rather than endure a major league club's travel schedule, as he did when he was the Royals' strength and conditioning coordinator. Pujols reaches under Mihlfeld's desk and extracts a pair of red custom Nikes; his name is stitched on the tongue of each shoe in white block letters, above the outline of a crucifix. Dressed in a sleeveless shirt and black track pants, Pujols sets to work.
With Mihlfeld beside him, Pujols jumps rope and stretches, then begins lifting weights. Lying flat on his back on a weightlifting bench, he hoists a 60-pound dumbbell in each hand and brings them straight up and parallel, 14 repetitions. He and Mihlfeld take turns, working in silence and boosting the weight in five-pound increments until they are up to 85 pounds in each hand.
Given a choice between watching TV or hitting off a tee, A.J. opts for the tee, but it doesn't hold his attention for long. Soon he's flitting among the machines, asking his dad, "Want to play catch? Want to have a catch?"
"Go watch Barney."
Pujols grumbles and continues lifting; he will not be distracted.
Until he enrolled at Maple Woods, Pujols never trained seriously. He learned the game on the ball fields of the Santo Domingo neighborhoods -- Cristo Rey, Villa Mella, Los Trinitario -- where he grew up. "Average fields, not as good as here in the States," he says. "No walls. A lot of ground-ball home runs." Pujols emigrated to the U.S. at 16 with his father, Bienvenido, living with an aunt and uncle in Independence, Mo. At Fort Osage High language and nationality set him apart. "No Dominicans, besides me and my cousins," he says. But he assimilated through the game and through the rituals of suburban teenagers, the idle Friday and Saturday nights spent at shopping malls.
Pujols and Mihlfeld lift for an hour and a half, and at 11:45 a.m., after lunch with A.J. at a nearby sandwich shop, they return to the gym, and Albert begins hitting. (Batting practice doesn't become part of the regimen until almost Christmastime; Pujols spends the first five weeks of the off-season repairing the damage done to his body by the daily grind of the regular season and playoffs.) While Pujols applies pine tar to his bats, Mihlfeld sits on a stool 10 feet in front of home plate, shaded toward first base, a plastic bucket of baseballs at his feet. Pujols steps in, and Mihlfeld begins feeding him underhand soft tosses.
While digging in with his right foot, Pujols taps the back point of home plate with his bat, as if finding his center of gravity. "That's just a habit I have," he says, momentarily taken aback at having been asked about it. "It doesn't make sense to explain it." When discussing hitting, Pujols often assumes this reticent tone. He's not being secretive; some things are just so second nature to him that he doesn't have the words -- or the desire -- to elaborate.
In his stance Pujols splays his legs at the knees, about 60% of his weight resting on his back foot. He brings his hands level with his right ear and flaps his right elbow three or four times, keeping the bat upright. "That's something to relax my body and relax my hands," he says. "I don't want to be too stiff, because then my hands won't be as quick." Pujols does not stride when he swings -- his front foot curls inward so that he stands pigeon-toed at the point of impact -- driving instead with his hips. "I'm trying to slow my body down and slow my swing down, use my hands and trust my hands," he says. "I just try to trust my hands and leave it nice and quiet."
Pujols's hand speed distinguishes him; his hands transfer the power generated by his legs and hips to the bat head. After BP he will spend a half hour lifting weights, the reps designed to strengthen his wrists and forearms. (He waits until after hitting to do this, so that he does not tighten up in the cage.) Because he can react more quickly than most hitters, Pujols sees each pitch longer. That allows him to follow any late break the ball may have and better determine its trajectory. Against lefthanders he even hits with a heavier bat, 33 ounces rather than his usual 321Ú2, so he will resist the temptation to pull the ball. "I trust that I can hit a fastball, that I can hit any pitch they throw me," he says. "I don't have to go get it. I can let it travel and get deep, deep to the plate."
This uncommon patience gives Pujols his exceptional plate coverage and ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. It also allows him to be selective; his walk totals have increased every year. Cardinals first base coach Dave McKay, Pujols's personal BP pitcher during the season, often pitches him exclusively away. "From the very first day we saw him in camp, he wasn't whaling," McKay says. "He'll ask me to pitch him away, away, so he can concentrate on seeing the ball. A lot of young guys will have a plan, but they'll abandon it. They'll come into a ballpark like Colorado and see if they can hit the scoreboard. He always has a routine."
When Mihlfeld stops soft-tossing and throws regular BP, which the pair most often uses for situational drills, Pujols asks, "What are we doing?" Mihlfeld replies, "Some hit-and-run," and pinpoints 20 minutes' worth of fastballs on the outside corner. Pujols hits almost every one to rightfield, exhaling in short, sharp bursts -- Whew! Whew! -- that ripple his upper lip as he makes contact. "He'll go four or five weeks before he pulls the ball," Mihlfeld says.
Pujols is as diligent as anyone in the game about studying videotape, scrutinizing his swing incessantly. The Cardinals have cameras in centerfield and along the first and third base lines at Busch Stadium that allow their hitters to view split-screen footage of at bats, head-on and from the side. After each at bat Pujols retreats to the video room to review his swing, ensuring that the habits ingrained all winter -- the alignment of his hands, the drive from his hips, the position of his head -- do not lapse. He is always fighting the season's steady entropy. "He takes a maintenance approach," Blair says. "At bat to at bat, he's making sure he's exactly where he wants to be. Is he jumping? Is he quick on the front side? Where are his hands in his setup?"
Pujols does not much care to boast that his success derives from learned insight; neither his humility nor his deep, abiding faith permit it. "It's whatever I feel comfortable with," he says, a little exasperated. "I don't try to be a scientific baseball hitter or a freaking genius baseball hitter." But the tens of thousands of cuts he takes in Mihlfeld's gym, the obsessive self-consciousness that sends him up the dugout runway to Blair's video room several times a game, have mainly one design: to make his swing repeatable, his actions automatic. In that repetition lies the quiet.