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In 2001, playing four positions, Pujols had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. 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 A's more than a decade earlier.
Before this season Pujols had 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 his worst season out of a lineup. Pick any year. 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 rating system that breaks down every play a defender makes. Since its creation in 2006, the system has ranked Pujols the best defensive first baseman in the National League four out of five seasons.
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 2009, 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. It doesn't matter. It made me hungry. Everything happens in God's time."
IN ST. LOUIS THEY STILL CALL STAN MUSIAL THE Man. They used to call Albert Pujols El Hombre until, as a show of respect to Musial, he asked people not to.
"Of course, Stan and Albert are a lot alike," says Musial's longtime friend and Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst. "The great ones are all a lot alike. They both love to hit. And they both are good people on and off the field. That matters."
This is where Albert gets emotional. This does matter to him. He believes deeply that God has given him the baseball platform to do good work. He met Dee Dee when he was just 18 years old. She thought he was 21—they met in a Kansas City dance club that was for people 21 and older. On their first date he admitted to being only 18. She said that she had a baby daughter, Isabella, who had been born with Down syndrome. He was in high school, still a ways from the majors. They fell in love fast.