PUJOLS'S SWING IS QUIET.
It begins with a
slow waggle of the right elbow, a scowl and pursed lips--the promise of
contact, the imminence of eruption. Then there is the quick whip of the bat,
the instant of impact and the follow-through, left arm extended with a
flourish. The beauty of Pujols's swing resides in the powerful grace of its
unfurling. � But quiet. Like all artisans, hitters have a language specific to
their craft. Those who are struggling at the plate are maybe rolling over or
pulling off, jumping or cheating. The far smaller number who are confidently
stroking hits are staying inside the ball, seeing it deep; their swings are
quiet. Yadier Molina, the St. Louis Cardinals catcher, and for the past three
seasons Pujols's hitting prot�g�, does not easily articulate what Pujols has
taught him, but he works around to this: "Just try to be quiet. Don't mess,
don't get pulled around moving your head, don't go like this"-- Molina
shuffles his hands on the handle of an imaginary bat, jerks his shoulders,
wriggles in discomfort--"just, quiet."
righthanded swing is flawless and invariable, even from season to season. Asked
if he's changed anything over the years, Pujols smiles and offers, in the
manner of a man recalling with faint nostalgia a foible of his youth, "I
used to high-kick with my front foot, in '98 or '99." At 26, he has far
surpassed Barry Bonds as the game's best player. Having batted over .300 with
more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in each of the first five seasons of his
career, Pujols has announced himself as the sport's greatest all-around hitter
since Ted Williams. The Dominican Republic native hit a record 14 home runs in
April, and through Sunday he had 19 homers in the Cardinals' first 38 games,
which qualifies as the hottest start for a long-ball hitter in the game's
history. He also led the majors with 48 RBIs, 39 runs and an .833 slugging
percentage. Predictably, he had walked in one fifth of his plate appearances as
well. He even plays Gold Glove--caliber defense at first base, his fifth major
league position. But it is the swing--simple, pruned of all nonessentials, and
embedded in his muscle memory--that is remarkable.
"He has the
ability to repeat his swing over and over and over, which leads to him being
very consistent," says Chad Blair, the Cardinals' video coordinator, who
has taped and charted every pitch of every one of Pujols's major league at
bats. "The adjustments he makes are tiny, minute. To take that approach for
700 at bats, to have his swing that fine-tuned, is amazing." Blair laughs
and adds, "That, coupled with a burning desire to be the baddest man on the
planet swinging a bat for a living."
gym squats in a business park at the end of a cul-de-sac in Pleasant Valley,
Missouri, a 15-minute drive north of Kansas City. It is a nondescript
warehouse, two stories high, anonymous behind gray aluminum siding. The park's
other occupants include a day-care center, a landscaper, a gymnastics studio
and a flooring contractor. On this pitiless February morning two weeks before
the start of spring training, the sky void of color and the grass framing the
parking lot a faded ocher, Mihlfeld arrives a little after nine o'clock and
turns on the heat. Melting ice drips from the skylights into a small puddle on
the artificial turf below. "Only when the heat first comes on," he
trains a handful of professional ballplayers, the Kansas City Royals' Mike
Sweeney among them, but he has known Pujols for the better part of a decade,
since signing the 18-year-old to play for him at Maple Woods Community College
in Kansas City. Mihlfeld's thick, compact build, with shaved head and barrel
chest, suggest a cannonball; though far too modest to volunteer this, he won a
Division II wrestling championship in 1991 while at Central Missouri State.
Pujols arrives punctually at 9:30, his five-year-old son, A.J., bouncing
alongside. The 6'3", 225-pound first baseman looks a little weary and
heavy-eyed. "Sophia had a bellyache last night," he says to Mihlfeld.
Born last November, Sophia is Pujols's youngest child. (His wife, Deidre, has
an eight-year-old daughter, Bella, from a previous relationship, whom Pujols
has adopted.) Mihlfeld nods; he has an infant child as well.
It is only with
Pujols's help that Mihlfeld has been able to lease and outfit the place. It's
equipped with a half-dozen Nautilus machines, two racks of free weights and
four batting cages. It allows the pair to train in private but also permits
Mihlfeld--like his employer a devout, serious man (Pujols calls him "my
best friend, almost my brother")--to work close to his family rather than
endure a major league club's travel schedule, as he did when he was the Royals'
strength and conditioning coordinator. Pujols reaches under Mihlfeld's desk and
extracts a pair of red custom Nikes; his name is stitched on the tongue of each
shoe in white block letters, above the outline of a crucifix. Dressed in a
sleeveless shirt and black track pants, Pujols sets to work.
beside him, Pujols jumps rope and stretches, then begins lifting weights. Lying
flat on his back on a weightlifting bench, he hoists a 60-pound dumbbell in
each hand and brings them straight up and parallel, 14 repetitions. He and
Mihlfeld take turns, working in silence and boosting the weight in five-pound
increments until they are up to 85 pounds in each hand.
Given a choice
between watching TV or hitting off a tee, A.J. opts for the tee, but it doesn't
hold his attention for long. Soon he's flitting among the machines, asking his
dad, "Want to play catch? Want to have a catch?"