ST. LOUIS -- The home runs are what everyone brings up first. The stratospheric blast off Houston closer Brad Lidge in last October's National League Championship Series with the Cardinals down to their last postseason breath is the first one that comes to mind. And then there was the shot a month ago in St. Louis, a ninth-inning 441-foot walkoff wallop against the Reds, his third of the game.
With his homers leaving stadiums in rapid, historic bunches these days, Albert Pujols is being mentioned with the best sluggers of all time -- Ted Williams and Babe Ruth and, yes, even Barry Bonds, a man whom Pujols has chased for nearly all of his young career. If anyone can break Bonds' single-season home run record, the statheads conclude, it'll be Pujols. If anyone besides Bonds can pass Hank Aaron's career home run record, Pujols may just be the man.
All the attention to the long ball, though, obscures the bigger picture of Pujols, the Cardinals' do-everything first baseman. With Bonds hobbled by injury and age and reduced to a curious sideshow by the hoodwinked masses, Pujols is now, without too much of an argument, the best player in the game. Yet he is even more than that, more than Bonds ever could be.
At just 26, Pujols is the game's biggest chance at public redemption, a superstar who can help us navigate past the wreckage of the Steroid Era to whatever it is that lies ahead.
"I think that this is a guy," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty says of his franchise player, "that Major League Baseball, as well as the Cardinals, can point to and say, 'This is someone who can be a symbol of what Major League Baseball is all about.'"
Pujols embodies it all. He is the hard work, determination and professionalism of Cal Ripken Jr. after the 1994 strike. He is Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, during the thrill of the Great Home Run Chase, before all the late-arriving baggage. Pujols is the wonder of Bonds before the suspicion of performance-enhancing drugs.
In too many ways to count, Pujols is almost too good, too sparkling clean, too perfect to believe. He was the 402nd pick in the June 1999 draft -- a 13th rounder -- and last year won the league's Most Valuable Player award. He remains humble in a game in which humility is rare. He is an avowed family man and deeply religious.
He and his wife, Deidre, have three children and together started the Pujols Family Foundation, dedicated to the "love, care and development of people with Down Syndrome and their families." (Their daughter, Isabella, has Down Syndrome.) The family is immensely active in the community, both in St. Louis and in Pujols' native Dominican Republic.
He is a baseball player who has gained great recognition, and that clearly is well down on Pujols' list of priorities.
"It's good to hear how people compare me with Ted Williams and Babe Ruth -- you're talking about the best players that ever played this game. That's good, but I'll let you guys do that," Pujols said before a recent game in St. Louis. "I just want to be Albert Pujols and take advantage of the situation on the field. And then give back to the community.
"God has put me on this platform so I can reach others, starting with my foundation. I get to reach all those people and get to share how God has blessed me in my life. Without Him, I'm nothing."
For years St. Louis has known what it has in Pujols. But word of Pujols the all-around superstar is finally out. Consider: Pujols is the only player to hit 30 home runs in each of his first five seasons and one of only four to have five straight seasons of 100 RBIs to start a career. He hit 14 homers this April, a record, and already has 19, reaching that number more quickly than anyone ever has. He is on pace, if you place stock in those too-early calculations from this season, to blow past Bonds' record of 73 home runs in a single season.