On A shelf in Albert Pujols's locker at Busch Stadium sits a ceramic baseball. It bears a verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." The ball was a gift from Pujols's wife, Dee Dee, a keepsake she bought at a Christian bookstore in St. Louis. It is not so much an inspiration as it is a commentary on the man who looks at it before every home game. "He thinks about his game so much that sometimes when he's stressed or frustrated, he walks around with that [downcast] feeling," Dee Dee says. "I always remind him, as long as he's giving his best, what else can he do?"
Dee Dee's single-minded husband seems to be constantly finding new answers to her rhetorical question. After an unprecedented start to his career—at 21 and 22 Pujols became the first player in major league history to bat .300 with 30 home runs, 100 runs and 100 RBIs in each of his first two seasons—the Cardinals' leftfielder has, amazingly, improved in this, his third year. At week's end he led the National League in batting average (.384), RBIs (66) and slugging percentage (.720) and was third in home runs (21) and on-base percentage (.448). In 20 games since June 1, Pujols had batted .440 with six home runs and 22 RBIs, a tear that prompted talk of baseball's first Triple Crown since the Boston Red Sox' Carl Yastrzemski accomplished the feat in 1967.
The runner-up to the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds for NL MVP last season, the 6'3", 225-pound Pujols has made a strong case at the season's midpoint that he has eclipsed Bonds as the game's most productive offensive player. The website baseball-reference.com, which uses saber-metrician Bill James's Similarity Scores Index to compare players at the same age in their careers, lists Joe DiMaggio as Pujols's closest statistical parallel. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, a veteran of 24 big league seasons who has had the likes of Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson on his rosters, recently anointed Pujols the best player he has managed.
Pujols displays an uncommon maturity that amazes his more veteran teammates (and has led to speculation, never confirmed, that Pujols is older than his stated age of 23). "There are guys who have been here six, seven years who are still searching, still grinding out at bats," says Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen, "while Albert is waiting for the pitch he wants to drive, and he's getting it. The most impressive thing about him is his awareness of where his bat head is. He gets it on almost every pitch." As Rolen speaks, first baseman Tino Martinez walks in from the showers and sits at an adjacent locker, listening in. "We're talking about Simontacchi," Rolen says with a smile to Martinez, gesturing toward righthander Jason Simontacchi. Martinez shakes his head. "I know exactly who you're talking about."
Pujols has exceptional hand speed and bat control. During the off-season he uses weight machines and dumbbells to strengthen his forearms. Fifteen minutes before most games, he retreats to an indoor cage with his personal tee and goes through drills that he picked up from the Texas Rangers' Alex Rodriguez. "They help me out, especially when I'm jumping at the ball," Pujols says. "They just remind me to stay back, use my hands and stay inside the ball." The righthanded-hitting Pujols covers the entire plate and often drives the ball harder to the opposite field than he does when pulling it, a sign of a disciplined and patient hitter. Against lefthanders Pujols hits with a 33-ounce bat, an ounce heavier than the one he swings against righties, to keep him from always trying to pull the ball. He rarely strikes out; he has half as many career home runs as whiffs (92 versus 188 through Sunday), a stellar ratio similar to that of Bonds (633 versus 1,361), the modern epitome of selectivity combined with power. "Lefthander, righthander, soft thrower, power guy, fastballs away, fastballs in—he doesn't have any holes," says Martinez. "It's a long season, with a lot of at bats, and it's hard to stay focused and not give any away, yet I can count on one hand the number of at bats he's given away."
But Pujols is much more than a hitter. The versatility he has displayed in the field—he played the outfield, first base and third base as a rookie—helped land him a roster spot on Opening Day 2001, though last year's additions of Rolen and Martinez have kept him almost exclusively in left-field. And Pujols continues to show remarkable instincts. "A couple of weeks ago we're down two runs in the eighth, first and third, and Albert hits a double in the gap to score a run," La Russa says. " J.D. Drew tries to score from first, and Albert is going to second. As soon as he sees the shortstop's throw being high all the way to the plate, he hauls ass to third. Now if J.D.'s safe [which he wasn't], we're tied and Albert is the go-ahead run on third with one out. To take third on that play and put us in position to go ahead was outstanding baseball."
A 13th-round pick of the Cardinals in the 1999 draft, Pujols had emigrated from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic at 16 with his father, Bienvenido, stopping in New York City for a month before settling in Independence, Mo., where several aunts and uncles had moved and were working as school bus drivers. He enrolled at Fort Osage High as a sophomore but spoke little English and required daily one-on-one lessons. "Language was Albert's biggest barrier," says Dave Fry, Pujols's coach at Fort Osage. "He had trouble understanding when you explained rules and regulations to him. But he loved the baseball. You could get anything about baseball through to him—how to move his hands when he hit, where to set his feet when he was fielding."
Those who watched Pujols's amateur career remember the almost mythical highlights: the home run he smashed at Liberty (Mo.) High, which went over the 402-foot fence in centerfield and off an air conditioning unit atop a two-story building; the drive he sent over the leftfield wall at Highland ( Kans.) Community College, which sailed across a street and over a tree. "Every time we go on a road trip, coaches still talk about tape-measure shots Albert hit," says Marty Kilgore, his coach at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., where Pujols matriculated in '99. "A ball he hit into somebody's backyard, over somebody's house, they're still fresh in the mind. One of his first games with us, he crushed a ball into a 30-mile-per-hour wind and only got a triple out of it. When he got to third base, he was pretty mad about it. He didn't think the wind should have mattered."
During his senior year at Fort Osage, Pujols met Dee Dee at a salsa club in Kansas City. After the two danced, Albert surprised Dee Dee by asking for her phone number. He confessed that he was only 18 and had fibbed to get into the 21-and-over establishment. On their first date Dee Dee made an admission of her own: She had an infant daughter, Bella; soon after, she told Albert that Bella had Down's syndrome. Fearful that he would misunderstand Bella's condition, Dee Dee gave him Spanish-language pamphlets explaining the disorder. "I don't want people to have the reaction that I have a retarded daughter," Dee Dee says. "Albert didn't even care [about Bella's condition]. It's almost like he was more attracted to her." Says Albert, "I was so in love with my wife, it was gonna be her and that was it, no matter if she had two kids or no kids. I look at Bella now, and she's so special to me."
Albert and Dee Dee moved in together after he graduated early from Fort Osage and married on New Year's Day, 2000—"so he wouldn't forget the date," she says. But in the early years of their marriage, in particular during Pujols's rookie year with St. Louis, when the couple's second child, Alberto Jr., was an infant, Pujols was so preoccupied with baseball that family life was sometimes secondary. "That year Albert was so focused on baseball, he thought that just being in the house was spending time with the kids," Dee Dee says. "I would tell him, 'You have to interact with them,' but he'd never had to do that before, so how would he know? I had to tell him so many times to read a book to the kids, and now I walk by the bedroom, and there he is, reading to them."