But this is not a great time to be the best anything in baseball. Barry Bonds was the best player, and now he is facing federal perjury charges. Roger Clemens was the best pitcher, and every other day another newspaper story takes him down one more notch. Mark McGwire was the best home run hitter, and after telling Congress that he did not want to talk about the past, he has all but disappeared into a Pynchon-like seclusion. Alex Rodriguez was the best player, and now he tentatively admits guilt while A-ROID! headlines splash and fans heckle and a hip injury shuts him down.
"We're in this era where people want to judge other people," Pujols says. "And that's so sad." He would like to leave it with those three words—that's so sad—but then people might wonder.
So he continues: "But it's like I always say, 'Come and test me. Come and do whatever you want.' Because you know what? There is something more important to me—my relationship with Jesus Christ and caring about others. More than this baseball. This baseball is nothing to me."
He stops cold. He shakes his head. Those words don't do him any good either. This is more of the uncompromising math of 2009: The more he denies, the less people will believe him.
This is the uneasy state of the new baseball hero. Albert Pujols knows he cannot prove to people that he has never used steroids. He knows that there will always be doubters. "Let's say I retire 15 years from now," he says. "They're going to say, 'Well, he probably did it back then. He just didn't get caught.' I know that's what they're going to say. And you know what, man? It is sad, but at the same time, it doesn't matter. I know who I am. I don't care."
Well, this is one answer. He could not worry about any of it. Albert Pujols makes a lot of money. He is the most beloved figure in one of America's best baseball towns. He is putting up baseball numbers that bend the imagination. Yes, he could just go about his business, play ball and leave the hero business to someone else. There's only one problem with that.
"I think deep down he does care," his wife, Dee Dee, says. "He really cares.... He wants to be a hero to people."
Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, has been about heroes. Ted Williams went to war—twice—and hit a home run in his last at bat; Hank Aaron hit home runs by night while stuffing the racist letters he received into a shoebox during the day. Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, and Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Cal Ripken played every inning every day. There is a good story about every baseball hero, and the best of those have always involved a child, a home run and a corny ending. Will you hit a home run for me, Babe? Sure I will, kid.
Albert Pujols has a baseball hero story like that. He has just about the most amazing baseball hero story you have ever heard. But does anyone want to hear a baseball hero story these days?
Pete's a fan of yours, Roy. He got a scrapbook that thick fulla pictures of you. Yesterday, they lemme go see him and I said to Pete you'd sock a homer for him in the game tonight. After that he sorta smiled and looked better. They gonna let him listen a little tonight, and I know if you will hit one it will save him.