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These are the hands of baseball's Hephaestus. In Greek legend Hephaestus, son of Zeus, kept a workshop in a shimmering palace on Olympus. On his anvil he forged the equipment of gods and men: Hermes' winged helmet, Helios' chariot and Achilles' armor. Pujols too is a blacksmth. Smith comes from a Middle English word meaning to forge or smite: to hit. To watch Pujols in the batting cage—the power, the banging, the noise—is to watch smithing done with 32½ ounces of maple.
"What stands out to me," says Cardinals third baseman David Freese, "is that every swing he takes, whether off the tee, soft toss or batting practice, is done with intensity and focus. He's an animal, the way he goes after it. I've never seen anything like it."
On Dec. 8, five weeks before he turned 32 and six weeks after he finished what may have been the best 11-year start in major league history, all of it with St. Louis, Pujols signed as a free agent with the Angels for $240 million over 10 years. He will be paid $30 million in 2021, when he's 41 years old. "He is," Angels owner Arte Moreno says, "the best player in baseball. It was an amazing opportunity for us."
Pujols is this generation's Ted Williams: the hitter's hitter, the undisputed master of the most evolved form of this complex and confounding art. Williams lost three of his prime seasons to World War II, so Pujols is statistically more prolific than Williams was through the season he was 31. Others in baseball history may have hit for a higher average or more contact or more power, but no one at this age besides Pujols has been more accomplished at the entire discipline of hitting.
Pujols, who has hit 445 home runs, is one of only seven players in history with 400 through age 31. Only two of those players hit that many while batting better than .320: Jimmie Foxx (.337) and Pujols (.328). And Pujols did so while striking out 27% less often than any of the others, and in an environment of competition and travel that the sluggers of yesteryear wouldn't recognize. Williams, for example, played until he was 42. He retired having played 544 night games, and faced 268 pitchers on seven teams in 11 ballparks, none west of Kansas City. Pujols has already played 1,110 night games and faced 978 pitchers on 29 teams in 34 ballparks across four time zones.
"Albert Pujols is the greatest hitter of all time," says Lance Berkman, a Cardinals teammate last year. "When you look at what he's been able to do in the modern game—with pitching, modern bullpens, worldwide competition—he's put up numbers nobody else ever did. And he's done it in a park [Busch Stadium] that is very tough on home runs. Believe me, I only hit nine there last year [but] 22 on the road. Gap to gap, you have to crush a ball to get it out."
Says Dave Silvestri, a former major league infielder who for the past three years has thrown batting practice to Pujols during off-season workouts, "He's going to own the alltime RBI record, the alltime doubles record, and he will be the alltime home run king—and he's going to have 3,500 hits. Albert is the best I've ever seen. And nobody is a close second."
Pujols's contract includes bonus payments for reaching 3,000 hits ($3 million) and 763 home runs ($7 million), one more than the record held by Barry Bonds. "I don't think about that," Pujols says. "You put that in your contract because it's part of the negotiations."
What he does think about is the backlash against the length of his contract. Skeptics scoffed at 10 years for a 32-year-old player (with well-worn gossip that he may be older) coming off his worst season. (He hit .299 with 99 RBIs in 2011 and still finished third in the National League in home runs with 37, fifth in total bases with 313 and fifth in the NL MVP voting.) Pujols heard the drumbeat of criticism. And like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who never forgot being passed over 198 times before he was drafted in the sixth round in 2000, Pujols, passed over 401 times before the Cardinals took him in the 13th round in 1999, is motivated by those who doubt him.
"Believe me, I have a chip on my shoulder about this contract," Pujols says, sitting on a stool in that St. Louis batting cage. "It's a new chapter in life. No matter what success I have on this level, there is room to improve. We'll see 10 years from now. I take care of my body pretty well, and I'm confident if I can stay healthy, I can play for 10 years and maybe more than that."