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It wasn't like that on the baseball field. His first day at Fort Osage High, his new baseball coach, David Fry, tried to speak to Pujols using Albert's cousin as interpreter. Pujols says, "I told my cousin, 'Tell him that I am here to play baseball. Let's go play. I'm not here to talk about anything.'"
His rise to the big leagues is now baseball lore. He hit like crazy in high school when pitchers actually gave him a chance—"I put up sick numbers," Pujols says. "I was a monster"—but he did not even make The Kansas City Star's first-team all-metro baseball team. He went to Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., and in his first game he homered and made an unassisted triple play at shortstop, then his regular position. After a breathtaking 1999 season there (.461 with 22 homers), he did not get drafted until the 13th round by the St. Louis Cardinals that June.
"We all saw Albert about the same way," says Allard Baird, who was then general manager of the Kansas City Royals. "We weren't sure he had a position. He didn't have a great baseball body. We all saw him the same way, and we were all wrong."
They weren't just wrong. They were spectacularly wrong. It isn't as though Pujols made himself into a great player after he signed with the Cardinals. He was a finished product. He was older than his years. He played just one season in the minor leagues, as a third baseman, and he was so overwhelming that at the end of that season the Cardinals jumped him from A ball to Triple A, where he hit .367 in the Pacific Coast League playoffs and was named the postseason MVP. The next spring, he was a nonroster invitee to Cardinals training camp, and he was so impressive that within days manager Tony La Russa was telling St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, "I've never seen anyone quite like him."
In 2001, playing four positions, Pujols had one of the greatest rookie seasons in history. He hit .329 with 47 doubles, 37 homers, 130 RBIs and 112 runs scored. No rookie had put up numbers like that since his Cardinals teammate Mark McGwire did with the Oakland A's more than a decade earlier.
Pujols has been at least as good every year since. He says he judges himself not by his best seasons, but by his worst. The thing is, it's almost impossible to pick Pujols's worst season out of a lineup. Pick any season you want. It's fair to say that Pujols's worst big league season, repeated over an entire career, would get him elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He's like pizza: Even when he's bad, he's good.
It is more than his offense. He has made himself into a defensive marvel. Baseball analyst John Dewan has invented a video-based defensive rating system that breaks down every play a defender makes. Since its creation three years ago, the system has ranked Pujols the best defensive first baseman in the National League in each season.
And it's more than his offense and defense. He runs the bases aggressively and successfully, especially for a man with below-average speed. And he is selfless. When Cardinals third baseman Troy Glaus had to undergo shoulder surgery in January, Pujols went to La Russa and said he would play third base if the team needed him there. "I told him, 'No, that's O.K. I don't think we want to mess with you,'" La Russa says. "But he was absolutely serious. That's the kind of guy Albert is. He would do anything for this team."
Nobody in the sport works harder than Albert Pujols. But, again, playing baseball hasn't been the difficult part.
"I don't want to sound cocky or arrogant, but I was always great at this game," Pujols says. "I was a little disappointed that I got drafted in the 13th round and all that. They can say what they want now, but I always put up the numbers. It doesn't matter. It made me hungry. Everything happens in God's time."