ALBERT PUJOLS's first World Series title further gilds a career without precedent: Pujols is the first player in major league history to bat .300 or better with at least 30 home runs, 100 runs and 100 RBIs in each of his first six seasons. In a world without Barry Bonds, Pujols, 26, would be clearing mantel space for his fourth MVP trophy, since no one now questions that he has been for some time the game's most complete, most feared hitter. The website Baseball-Reference.com, which employs Bill James's Similarity Scores Index (a measure of statistical comparability) to list like players, gives Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson and Joe DiMaggio as Pujols's three closest parallels through age 26.
"The only thing I ever say to him," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "is 'Stay the same, never change.' He hasn't. I think he's getting more determined all the time to keep improving, and I don't think that should be taken for granted. I see a lot of guys lose an edge because of instant money and instant fame."
La Russa, a veteran of 27 seasons who has handled the likes of Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire and Scott Rolen, has declared Pujols the best player he has managed, and the trepidation with which he did so flatters the others. "The way you manage Pujols is the same way you manage McGwire," La Russa says. "Who do you play and what time does the game start?"
Pujols's businesslike, professional demeanor is a product of the uncommon maturity that amazes his teammates (and may be the source of the speculation, never confirmed, that he is older than his stated age). "There are guys who have been here six, seven years who are still searching, still grinding out at bats," says 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."
Pujols has exceptional hand speed and bat control; he believes, correctly, that his hand speed is his greatest asset. During the off-season he uses weight machines and dumbbells to strengthen his forearms. He has also been known to retreat to an indoor cage just before game time and go through drills that he picked up from the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez. "They help me out, especially when I'm jumping at the ball," Pujols says. "They 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, but he cannot be jammed inside because he opens his body and moves his hands through the zone so quickly. He rarely strikes out; he has more than half as many career home runs as whiffs (250 versus 394), a stellar ratio that tops that of Bonds (734 versus 1,485), the modern epitome of selectivity combined with power.
Pujols steps up to the plate with a methodical procedure: He digs in with his right foot on the back line of the batter's box, taps his bat head to the bottom point of the plate, then carefully draws his bat back behind his ear and upright so it is perpendicular to the earth. Pujols then flexes his pointed right elbow slowly, three or four times, like a bellows, while holding his bat steady. The performance evokes a coiled spring, and the unfurling of his swing--he turns his left foot in, pigeon-toed, pivoting on the ball of the foot as the pitch comes in, before flashing his bat--is explosive by contrast.
Pujols is a cerebral hitter, very regular--only once in the 2006 season did he go three games without a hit--and constantly adjusts during a game. "Nothing fazes him, and his swing is never out of whack," says former Cardinals rightfielder Larry Walker. "There's only a handful of people I've seen who don't get into slumps: Todd Helton, Tony Gwynn. What they have in common is that they're always working on their swings. What people don't see is Albert leaving the dugout after every at bat to go up to the clubhouse and look at tape, critiquing his every at bat. He's in the video room a lot, in the cage a lot." Says ESPN analyst Tino Martinez, a teammate of Pujols's in St. Louis for two seasons, "Lefthander, righthander, soft thrower, power guy, fastballs away, fastballs in--he doesn't have any holes. 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."
In 2006, ensconced in the three hole in St. Louis's powerful lineup (preceded by young slugger Chris Duncan and followed by Rolen), Pujols hit better than .330 (.331) for the fourth straight season with a career-high 49 home runs and 137 RBIs, the latter two totals both second in the National League to the Phillies' Ryan Howard. Pujols's .671 slugging percentage was tops in all of baseball. Amazingly, he stayed close to that pace in the division series (.600), despite seeing fewer good pitches in the more tightly managed playoff crucible. Against the Padres, Pujols batted .333 and led the Cardinals with three RBIs.
While his RBIs were down in the NLCS, he still batted .318 and made other contributions. After going 0 for 3 in a 2-0 loss to 290-win maestro Tom Glavine in Game 1 of the NLCS, Pujols had the bad manners to say that the Mets' lefthander "wasn't good. I think we hit the ball hard, we didn't get some breaks." Pujols wasn't trying to be disrespectful. He merely seems of the opinion that he should hit any pitcher regardless of his credentials.