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The two of them shared the left side of the infield, alternating at short and third. Albert hit like Franco, with a high leg kick and his hands inside the ball. He also loved to snack on sugarcane and didn't run very well. But one time, on a field without a fence, Albert smacked a drive so far that he was able to run all the way around the bases, reaching home with a headfirst slide. "When he got up," Rojas says, "his face was covered in chalk. We couldn't stop laughing at his white face. He thought we were making fun of his running, but it was because of his face."
Says Pujols, "[Rojas] is my best friend. We were the youngest ones on the team. I think the league we were playing in was better than Rookie ball or even A ball here. That's how competitive it was.
"That's why when I came to the States for high school and college, people didn't believe my age—I was able to mature so early playing against guys who were 15, 16 and 17 years old. When I got here in high school, it was almost like playing with kids. Everything came easy."
Pujols's age, like Ruth's called shot, has been a topic of much debate. According to Pujols, he was 16 in 1996 when his family moved to New York, where one day he happened to be in a bodega when gunfire broke out, sending him sprinting to his apartment in Washington Heights. The family soon moved to Independence, Mo., on the advice of an uncle, who saw better job opportunities there. Pujols graduated from high school in the winter of 1998--99, enrolled at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., and was drafted by St. Louis in June 1999 at the listed age of 19.
Even the Cardinals, according to a team source, weren't sure of his age when they drafted him, or in 2004 when they signed him to a seven-year contract—though they didn't consider it an issue. Offering a 10-year contract to a man whose listed age is 32, however, involves more risk. One general manager not involved in the Pujols bidding last winter said he would have been concerned because he'd heard that in his childhood Pujols "played with Octavio Dotel," the 38-year-old Tigers pitcher who claimed to be 17 but was actually 19 when he signed in 1993.
"Yes, [Dotel] played in the same league but many years before us," Rojas says. "He'd always come back when he was home from the States. He would organize a game between signed players and the most talented players from the league. We were always on Dotel's team or on his brother's. Octavio Dotel was like an idol for us; he was signed from our barrio. By the time Albert arrived on the Trinitarios, Dotel was already signed."
Says Chris Mihlfeld, Pujols's trainer, who has known him since November 1998, "If it comes out that he's older than he says, I'll drop dead like a doornail. That would be the biggest disappointment of my life. He's not going to lie. I'd bet my life on it.
"He's so, so great, everybody thinks it can't be true: It's got to be steroids or age or something. Why can't it be that he is a great baseball player?"
Pujols is nearly done with the hitting session in the St. Louis cage, during which he will have hit 85 balls off a tee or thrown to him by Silvestri. (After one swing, in a baseball reenactment of The Princess and the Pea, he tells Silvestri something isn't right with the ball he just hit. Silvestri fetches it and finds that it's the one ball in the bucket that's not regulation MLB issue.) Meanwhile a visitor has noticed there was something Pujols did not do once in all those swings: hit a ball off the left side of the netting.
Pujols laughs. "If I want to pull the ball, believe me, I can pull it," he says. "But I don't want that."