Albert Pujols has a jersey in Cooperstown, at least two listings in the baseball record book, a half-dozen gloves to accommodate his defensive versatility and the credentials to claim—though his unwavering humility would never allow him to do so—that he is having the greatest rookie season in the history of the sport. To his lengthy list of first-year achievements, the St. Louis Cardinals phenom added a stunner last Friday night: He made normally grave St. Louis manager Tony La Russa break into a wild celebration.
Having watched his team squander 4-0 and 5-4 leads over the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, La Russa had a sinking feeling as Pujols batted with the bases loaded in the ninth inning with the score tied at 5-5. "I thought, We've put such a load on him all year, this is the situation for a double-play ball. There's not a great chance to get the run home," La Russa would say later.
On the third pitch from Pittsburgh righthander Omar Olivares—a diving sinker on the inside corner—Pujols golfed a grand slam that lifted the Cardinals to their eighth straight victory and sent La Russa into a whooping hysteria. "I lost my cool," La Russa said in his office. "The whole dugout erupted. He did it again."
The home run capped a five-RBI night for Pujols (his second such performance in four days) and gave him 14 RBIs in five games. He would drive in another run the next night, going 2 for 4 as St. Louis extended its winning streak to nine with a 4-1 victory. Pressing himself to come up with yet another description for Pujols's bang-up season, La Russa tried "incredible," realized he'd probably tossed that word around before and moved on to "obscene." Thankfully, he stopped there.
Talk about your wild Cards. Although Pittsburgh finally cooled St. Louis, ending its nine-game winning streak on Sunday with a 2-1 victory, the Cardinals still were 28-10 since Aug. 9. Much of the Cardinals' performance this year defies belief, including how they morphed in six weeks from a dispirited, mediocre ball club into a playoff contender, how they built the winningest rotation in the National League with the aid of a 170-pound rookie southpaw and a postseason-starved journeyman whom no team claimed on waivers, and how, amid all that, the greatest active home run hitter could feel as useless as a tailor in a nudist camp.
However, the most improbable aspect of this improbable season, which at week's end left St. Louis with a three-game lead over the San Francisco Giants, its closest pursuer for the National League wild-card berth, is the 21-year-old Pujols, who came to spring training as a nonroster player with one year of minor league experience, all but three games of it in Class A ball. Through Sunday, Seattle Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki was leading the American League in batting (.348) and was only eight hits shy of the rookie record of 233 set by Joe Jackson in 1911, but the impact of Pujols, who is six years younger than Ichiro, has been more powerful. At week's end Pujols was hitting .335, fourth in the National League and the best mark of any righthanded hitter in baseball; he had 36 home runs, leaving him two short of the league's rookie record, shared by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson (sidebar, page 47); he had more extra-base hits (83) and RBIs (126, with the record-breaking 120th prompting a request from the Hall of Fame for his jersey) than any other National League rookie ever; and he needed only 10 total bases to tie the league mark (352) set by Dick Allen in 1964.
Only one rookie, Hal Trosky of the 1934 Cleveland Indians, has hit 35 home runs while batting better than .320. Given his numbers through Sunday, Pujols is a virtual cinch to join him—and to have better on-base (.408 to .388) and slugging (.623 to .598) percentages than Trosky did. A lock for the National League Rookie of the Year award, Pujols has thrust himself into the running for the MVP award as well. Only Fred Lynn ( Boston Red Sox, 1975) has won both awards in the same year. The testimonials have already begun.
"I've had many great players have MVP-caliber seasons," La Russa says. " Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson. And maybe I'm guilty of putting more emphasis on what's happened most recently, but what this kid has done is the greatest performance of any position player I've ever seen."
Says Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon, "I've never seen anything like it. He's quick to the ball with his bat, he hits to al fields, he rarely goes outside the strike zone and no situation seems to rattle him. This young man has a chance to be quite a force for some time in this league."
"He's a freak," St. Louis second baseman Fernando Vi�a says of Pujols. "You don't walk into baseball and do what he's done.'