The sound of genius hurts the ears. Thwack! It startles like a firecracker going off in a kitchen. Thwack! It is as piercing as a gunshot. Thwack! Inside a low-slung, nondescript brick building in suburban St. Louis one February morning, Albert Pujols inflicts the beautiful violence of his swing upon baseball after baseball sitting on a batting tee, as doomed as a clay pigeon. It is here, in a public batting cage, with a few kids in the back sending up the occasional ping!, that the greatest hitter of his generation attends to the labor of his greatness. To be inside the cage, with Pujols providing the lecture notes, is akin to being inside room 109 of Princeton's Fine Hall in the days of Albert Einstein.
"When I'm hitting off the tee like this, I'm getting loose," Pujols says, "but I'm also thinking, Put that perfect swing on it and repeat it."
"See? That's the swing I want to repeat."
Nearly every baseball Pujols hits smacks off the back net into a debris field roughly the size of an archery target. If Pujols were in a baseball park, the balls would be lined through the infield roughly halfway between second base and the second baseman. "See that piece of tape on the back screen?" he says, pointing to a spot about six or seven feet off the ground toward the right side of the net. "I want to hit it about three feet below that. I want to hit it the same height as the pitch."
"See that? See how about halfway there it's almost like it starts to take off? That's backspin. How do I create backspin? Everything comes from the bottom hand. Everybody thinks, Top hand, top hand. If it's top hand, look at this...."
He swings down on the ball, hitting it above its equator, and the ball quickly bites into the ground and bounces away.
"Pulling the bottom hand through the baseball.... Every time you see a perfect swing, the top hand almost looks like it's underneath your bat [at contact]. It's the bottom hand. All the time. That's where backspin comes from. Get your hands inside the ball and let your hands work."
Albert Pujols has the hands of a prizefighter. They are massive, strong and fast. Think of the amount of energy in a cinder block launched at high speed, and you begin to understand the damage Pujols can do with a bat in those hands, which are his defining physical characteristic. Pujols's swing is a technical wonder, a kinetic event that causes the most mayhem with the least effort. But if you had to reduce it to its most astonishing element, it would be this: He brings his hands to the baseball faster and more directly than perhaps any other man who has ever lived.