Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 16, 2009
ALBERT PUJOLS KNOWS THAT PEOPLE DO NOT BELIEVE him. He does not just know it, he lives it, breathes it, takes it with him into the batting cage in Jupiter, Fla., on a hazy mosquito day at the Cardinals' spring training complex. Pujols stretches out into his familiar batting stance—legs wide apart, bat quivering high above his shoulder, head up in an oddly proud way, as if he's a soldier sitting on a horse, as if he's posing for posterity. Pujols rockets hard line drive after hard line drive. People marvel at how much louder and fuller the ball sounds coming off his bat than off the bat of anyone else. That sound used to make heroes. Now, it may only fuel the cynics in the great American jury.
He will not stop hitting, of course. That is no option. He hit his way out of the Dominican Republic. He hit his way into the American dream. In his 11 years in the major leagues Pujols has hit. 328, averaged 40 home runs and 121 RBIs and never finished out of the top 10 in the MVP balloting. In 2011, though he missed 15 games with a left-wrist fracture, he wound up at .299, 37 homers, 99 RBIs. His career postseason batting average is about .330. He has won two Gold Gloves. He is the Best Player in Baseball.
But this is not a great time to be the best anything in baseball. The Steroid Era has created suspicion, cynicism, doubt. "We're in this era where people want to judge other people," Pujols says. "But it's like I always say, 'Come and test me.' Because you know what? There is something more important to me—my relationship with Jesus Christ and caring about others. More than this baseball. I know who I am. I don't care."
Well, this is one answer. He could not worry about any of it. He 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 heroism 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. 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?
THE THING ALBERT PUJOLS REMEMBERS IS THE weight. It's a helluva thing to carry your father. Forget the emotional part. First you have to balance the weight just right. Then you have to walk at a steady pace. And, more than anything, you have to keep going, keep moving, even as the crushing weight of a man twice your size bears down.