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Mr. Everything (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday May 17, 2006 12:01PM; Updated: Thursday May 18, 2006 1:00AM
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Should Pujols get the Bonds Treatment?
When Barry Bonds was still at his power-hitting peak, he was walked a record 232 times. That was 2004. The Giants slugger owns the top three spots on the list of most walks in a season, including both 2002 (198) and '01 (177).

So is Albert Pujols, currently tied for fourth with 33 walks this season, next in line for the Bonds Treatment?

There's probably no consensus among baseball people, but the general thinking is that it will be harder to give Pujols as many free trips to first base as Bonds for three reasons: One, a lot of managers simply don't want to send the message to their pitchers that they have no faith in them, or to their team that they're afraid of another player. The other two reasons: Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Bonds hasn't enjoyed anywhere near that level of protection in the lineup.

Still ...

"He's approaching that respect level where guys are going to stop pitching to him no matter who's hitting behind him," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones says of Pujols. "He's so efficient at driving the ball out of the ballpark and driving in runs. He does everything."

Brewers manager Ned Yost is not a big believer in walking Pujols, for one big reason. He has scored more runs (39) this season than anyone in the game.

"Every time we walk him, intentionally or unintentionally, he scores anyway. So what's the difference?" Yost said. "He's a tough guy to walk when they have Edmonds and Rolen behind him. You'd probably rather take your chances with those two guys. It just seems like every time we walk him, he scores."

Houston manager Phil Garner, victimized by a Pujols homer in Game 5 of last year's NLCS, is more apt to walk Pujols if given the chance.

"Rolen is behind him now," Garner said, "But the truth of the matter is, you say, 'If he beats me, fine. I'm not going to let Pujols beat me.'"
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Yes, Pujols has become, bar none, the most feared slugger in the game. But calling him a slugger is unnecessarily pigeonholing him. Pujols started this season with a .332 career batting average. He's currently hitting .323.

"I remember, when he came up, thinking he was going to be a good player," says Mets pitcher Tom Glavine. "I guess it would probably be fair to say that he's better than you anticipated, 'cause I don't know that you ever anticipate somebody being that good."

Pujols plays with joy and purpose, and his penchant for the dramatic has become well known throughout baseball. In Game 5 of last year's NLCS, with the Cardinals an out away from elimination -- "We were all going home," Jocketty recalls. "We thought we were done" -- Pujols crushed a Lidge fastball for the game-winning three-run homer.

On Easter Sunday, in a tense back-and-forth matchup with divisional rival Cincinnati, Pujols turned on an inside fastball from David Weathers, punching it eight rows into the third deck to finish off the Reds and put a remarkable ending on the Cardinals' first homestand in the new Busch Stadium.

"Every time was a pressure situation. And Pujols comes up and just puts one in the freaking third deck like it's no big deal. After hitting two home runs," said new teammate Scott Spiezio. "You wouldn't even think a pitcher would come close to the plate. And I don't even think it was that close. He still hit a ball inside and kept it fair. Most guys would pull that foul."

As good as his hitting is -- it's so good this season that he may soon be getting the Bonds Treatment (see box, above) when he comes to the plate -- Pujols has also made himself into one of the top five defensive first basemen in the game. He began his big league career in 2001 shuttling from third base to first base to the outfield. He didn't become a full-time first baseman until 2004. Now he's the favorite to win the NL Gold Glove.

So Pujols hits. He hits for power. He plays a mean defense. He runs the bases well. And he's the consummate team player, a top-step-dwelling, hand-clapping, cheerleading example for all.

"Somebody says he's a great player: What difference does that make?" says his manager, Tony La Russa. "He's playing to his own standards."

Last week, Jocketty watched as Pujols pulled aside teammate Juan Encarnacion after an especially poor at-bat in Colorado. "I saw Albert talking to him in the dugout, showing him something," the GM said, "and I swear to God, the next at-bat, he hit a home run."

Years ago La Russa called Pujols the best player he'd ever managed. Now the skipper wonders out loud if there's any way his first baseman can improve.

"I've seen him go 0 for 4, the score be tied, a guy leads off with a walk and he jumps out cheerleading," La Russa says. "He's not moping.

"He just plays the game with the goal of his team winning. When he goes to bat, if he's leading off, he'll take a walk. If he's got a chance to drive in a run, he'll expand his zone. That's why he makes a defensive play. That's why he steals bases in extra innings. That's part of why I think ... I don't know how he could be better than he is."

Maybe the best part about Pujols is that there's hardly a scent of scandal about him. There were whispers, especially early in his career, that he's actually older than his listed age. He can get moody at times, though nothing close to the perpetually churlish Bonds. Back in April, Pujols drew some criticism for flipping his bat after homering off Pittsburgh's Oliver Perez. (He later apologized.)

Mostly, though, what we see is what we get with Pujols. And what we are seeing is one of the most remarkable starts to a career. What we are seeing is the coming of age of a baseball legend, the best of his generation and, if he stays healthy, maybe the best of many generations to come.

"As long as you don't get caught up thinking you are better than the game, or you think that you're better than everybody else, as long as you don't get caught up in that, you'll be fine," Pujols said. "If you stay humble, you're going to survive to play this game -- if you stay healthy -- for 15-20 years. That's what I want to do. Stay humble before God. Stay humble before my teammates. And just have fun out there and play the game."

What we are seeing in Pujols is a man who seemingly does just about everything right. On the field. At home. In the community. Everywhere.

In an age of asterisks and doubt, his timing couldn't be better.



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