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The next 10 at the level you're at now?
He nods. "Or better. We'll see."
When he is done talking—done reminiscing about growing up in the Dominican Republic, recalling the bullets that whizzed past him in a New York City shoot-out, tackling the age issue again and explaining how that meticulously calibrated swing fell apart last season—Pujols rises from his stool, grips his bat in those cinder-block hands and speaks like a man eager to smite.
"Let's take some hacks."
Estadio Quisqueya, with its single horseshoe deck of seating and its awninglike roof, was built in Santo Domingo in 1955 and originally named for Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic's dictator and a baseball aficionado. Almost all the great Dominican baseball stars have passed through Estadio Quisqueya, mostly in winter league ball or off-season workouts. In the 1980s, Pujols's stepfather operated a little store underneath Quisqueya's stands, where he sold sandwiches, soda and beer. As a boy Albert helped his stepfather at the store. One of the perks of the job was early access to the empty ballpark, and Albert would marvel at the batting-practice feats of Raul Mondesi, Sammy Sosa and other Dominican stars as the noise of professional hitting echoed across 14,829 empty seats.
No other hitter, however, was as engrossing to watch as Julio Franco. Every swing seemed to be a merengue in miniature, a dance of flourish and filigree in which the barrel of Franco's bat began pointed at the pitcher, was drawn back and, after a dramatic leg kick, came around in a tight arc, more often than not sending line drives whistling into the rightfield gap—the signature result of what hitters call keeping the hands "inside the ball," or close to the body through the hitting zone.
"I remember me and my friends watching Julio Cesar Franco," Pujols says, smiling at the memory. "Everybody in the D.R. wanted to be like him—staying inside the ball."
Pujols's mother and father divorced when he was three but maintained an amicable relationship. Albert was raised by his grandmother and father in a single-level, three-bedroom, one-bathroom house shared by 10 people. His father, Bienvenido, was a house painter and one of the country's best softball pitchers. Bienvenido had one requirement of his team as it traveled around the D.R.: "If there is not a seat for my son, I won't go." There was always a seat for Albert.
"I used to grab his glove in between games, and he would hit me grounders at shortstop," Pujols says. "I got a couple of teeth knocked out once. I had that fever. I wanted to be like my dad. I wanted to be a baseball player."
At about age 12, Albert joined a youth team in Santo Domingo called the Trinitarios, and he immediately competed with an incumbent shortstop named Rene Rojas, who was a year older. "He was there before me because he was always so responsible, very prompt," Rojas says, remembering one of Albert's first practices. "He was doing well, and I thought, Well, there's my competition. But it didn't last long. We started talking, hanging out. We helped each other. We took grounders together, hit together, went swimming together."