Adds teammate McGwire, who set the major league record for rookie home runs, with 49 in 1987, "I believe he's been reincarnated, that he played before, in the '20s and '30s, and he's back to prove something. He fits every definition of what the MVP should be. If we didn't have him, well, I don't want to think where we'd be."
Only once (July 4-6) has Pujols played three consecutive games without a hit. Only once (June 29-30 against the Giants) has he played a series without a hit. When he encountered his only slump (a 2-for-35 skid into the All-Star break), Pujols cut it short, he says, by "not thinking about it. I knew it was going to happen. What I've learned this year more than anything is patience. Patience at the plate, yes, but patience in general."
As consistent as he has been, Pujols has boosted his production down the stretch. From Aug. 1 through Sunday, he had hit .368 with 48 RBIs in 46 games, including a league-high 23 RBIs in September. He'd been so reliable that righthander Woody Williams, who had been with the club since Aug. 2 (when he came from the San Diego Padres in a trade for leftfielder Ray Lankford), had never seen a game in which Pujols didn't reach base until Sunday, when he went 0 for 4.
Through Sunday, Pujols had started at least 29 games at each of four positions: third base, first base, rightfield and leftfield. (In spring training he also played shortstop.) He claims not to be bothered in the least by the itinerancy. "I want to be in the lineup every day," he says. "Playing anywhere is better than playing the bench." A parsing of his hitting statistics shows how little the position shifting has affected him: .344 in 54 games as a third baseman, .345 in 39 games as a first baseman, .292 in 39 games as a rightfielder and .366 in 32 games as a leftfielder.
"I do what I need to do to stay up here," Pujols said on Friday, after his grand slam broke the 72-year-old record for extra-base hits by a National League rookie, set by Johnny Frederick of the Brooklyn Dodgers with 82. "I don't try to think about records. I don't think about what Ted Williams did or what Frank Robinson did. I'm not trying to have a great year as a rookie setting records. I am trying to get my baseball team into the playoffs and World Series. That is the only record that I want."
The Cardinals have become accustomed to that sort of modesty and mature thinking from the married father of two young children. When recently asked, for instance, if he felt fatigued—Pujols has sat out only one game this season and has already played 16 more games than he did last year in the minors—the rookie replied, "No. I shouldn't be tired from playing baseball. I don't go out and drink and do a lot of things. I spend time with my family. That's my hobby. That's it. Family and baseball."
Pujols played himself onto the roster with a torrid and industrious spring training. The Cardinals had traded third baseman Fernando Tatis to the Montreal Expos last winter partly because, after watching Pujols for only one minor league season, in which he hit a combined .314 with 19 homers and 96 RBIs for three clubs, they thought he might be ready to man the position in St. Louis as early as 2002. Pujols was born in the Dominican Republic and moved at age 16 with his father, Bienvenido, to Independence, Mo. He attended tiny Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City before St. Louis selected him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft.
This spring La Russa asked Pujols, whose natural position is third base, to play the outfield; early on he made a diving catch with the bases loaded to take a hit from the New York Mets' Mike Piazza. When La Russa gave him a day off, Pujols voluntarily took ground balls at shortstop for 50 minutes. The next day an impressed La Russa put him at shortstop. He started a double play on the first ball hit to him. Finally, a few days before Opening Day, La Russa told Pujols that he'd made the team. "But he told me it might just be for the [opening] series in Colorado" Pujols says. "He didn't know if I would stay after that."
"What happened after that," McGwire says, "was we went to Arizona, and he bombed a double off the wall in center off Randy [Johnson], and we all went, 'Uh-oh. We've got something here.' "
Pujols quickly established himself as the most reliable hitter in the lineup as McGwire (who has never fully recovered from surgery on his right knee 11 months ago), centerfielder Jim Edmonds and shortstop Edgar Renteria struggled. Indeed, the team slowly changed from one built around veterans McGwire and Edmonds to one built around Pujols and 25-year-old rightfielder J.D. Drew, who missed 35 games after being hit on the right hand with a pitch in June and who through Sunday was batting .324 with 24 homers and 67 RBIs. McGwire, who says he cannot drive off his back leg because of his wobbly knee, was hitting only .182 at week's end, with 106 strikeouts in 269 at bats. Even when he popped his 25th homer last Thursday in a 9-1 win over the Pirates, so gloomy was Big Mac that he spoke about his team as if he were an accidental tourist. "I'm having a good time watching them," he says. "If I didn't have McGWIRE on my back, I wouldn't be sniffing the field at all."