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Monday, September 26, 2005
Updated: April 15, 12:29 PM ET
El Hombre

By Buzz Bissinger

It's the top of the fourth inning of the 136th game of the 2005 season. The Cardinals may be rolling into the playoffs, but the Astros are leading, 1-0. At the plate is Albert Pujols, in his 505th at-bat, and we might as well reveal that nothing epic will take place. No booming home run over Tal's Hill. Not even one of Pujols' patented thunderbolt doubles off the left-field wall.

In the annals of Pujols' nearly unprecedented five-year career, this September at-bat is a snowflake in the blizzard, so apparently lacking in drama that Pujols himself, when asked about it the next day, will wonder what all the fuss is about. But it's still an at-bat, a Pujols at-bat, and the moment and its aftermath shed another sliver of light on the greatness of him-the booming home runs, yes, and the thunderbolt doubles, sure, but also the tiny details, tangible and intangible, that turn a player from merely spectacular into an icon.

What makes Albert Pujols great?

"It's a combination," says Tony La Russa. "His physical skills are exceptional. His technical skills are outstanding. He is as intelligent as you can be about eating, about working out, about understanding his swing. He remembers at-bats going back years. He has terrific courage at the plate, and this relentless desire to be part of a winning team."

What makes Albert Pujols great?

"He's a greedy hitter," says hitting coach Hal McRae. "He wants to get all the hits, all the RBIs, all the important at-bats. He never gives in, never gives away an at-bat, never wants to leave a game."

What makes Albert Pujols great?

"He has a weakness down and in," says Astros manager Phil Garner, "but everybody's afraid to throw it down and in because if you miss, it's out of the ballpark."

The more often you pose the question, the more effusive the responses become. But maybe the answer is something else altogether. Not the bat speed. Not the ability to stroke the ball to all fields. Not the 6'3", 225-pound physique. But another quality, with no statistic to quantify it.

What makes Albert Pujols great?

"I appreciate every inning," says Albert Pujols, "every little moment of baseball."

On the mound in the top of the fourth is Roger Clemens, and the matchup is rich and complex: battle-worn icon vs. fresh icon, 43-year-old with 22 years' experience vs. 25-year-old with five years' experience, heat vs. heat, guile vs. guile.

Clemens comes into the game with a 1.51 ERA, best in the National League. Pujols comes into the game with a .334 batting average, second-best in the NL. He's third in homers (35), second in RBIs (100) and first in runs scored (111). Clemens is sour impatience on the mound, the face out of Texas rounded in pouty misery, eyes as dead as a great white shark's, trolling for the next meal, looking as if the hitters below him smell slightly rotten. Pujols strides to the plate and assumes his fearsome stance, the stance, back leg dug into the white chalk edge of the back of the batter's box, front leg stretched almost all the way across to the front of the box to give him a short and compact stride, bat held high, hands up and ready to pounce. He exudes power, a man with a God-given talent to smack the living crap out of the ball. But it's more complicated than that.

From Pujols' perspective, this confrontation actually began hours before, in the sanctuary of the visitors clubhouse. Pujols' approach to hitting is a methodical exercise in craftsmanship. It's as if every day he dismantles the pieces of an engine to see what makes it work at maximum horsepower, and then puts all the pieces back together again.

Three video monitors were set up in the corner of the clubhouse under the stands at Minute Maid Park. On one of them was a Yankees-A's game. On another was a Michigan football game. On the third was a compilation of Clemens' recent performances gathered by Cardinals video coordinator Chad Blair. A handful of players gathered in front of the monitors, their gaze starting with Clemens, then wandering to one of the live games. But Pujols, dressed in a black workout shirt, sitting in a black, hard-backed chair, was locked on Clemens.

Pujols' hands were behind his head, his elbows wide like the wings of a jetliner, his shoulders massive, his forearms long, thick wedges. The eyes were doing all the work-watching Clemens' delivery, watching what the old master tries to do with his fastball and slider and split-finger, watching the swings of hitters who managed to get around on him and drive the ball into the gap in left-center.

The ritual extends to Pujols' examination of his own at-bats. After each one, when the time is right, he will leave the dugout and head into the clubhouse. He will sit with Blair, who is recording the video feed from a centerfield camera, and he will examine the at-bat whether it's a hit or an out. He pays attention to his hands to make sure he's staying inside the ball. He watches the level of his swing to make sure there's no creeping uppercut. Most important, he looks at the location of the pitches he is getting to see where he may need to make an adjustment. "You need to be prepared every at-bat, every pitch, to make an adjustment," he says, "or you won't be able to survive."

WHEN PUJOLS faced Clemens in the top of the first, he managed only an easy grounder to shortstop. But it's apparent to Pujols that Clemens doesn't have his best stuff. In the bottom of the second, Clemens awkwardly attempted a bunt and tweaked something in his left leg. He seems to have lost the ability to throw his fastball with full force, which means he's going to have to rely on his slider. That creates an opportunity for Pujols, a better idea of what to look for when he comes to the plate to lead off the fourth. But Clemens is still Clemens, still full of guts and contempt, still the old master.

He starts with a sinker away that Pujols, with the discipline of a singles hitter, doesn't chase. Clemens comes back with a splitter down and in. Pujols doesn't chase that, either, and the count is 2-0.

UNLIKE A-ROD or Barry Bonds, first-round picks with can't-miss labels, Albert Pujols has no lofty pedigree. Born in the Dominican Republic, he and his family settled in Missouri. He went to Fort Osage High School near Kansas City and then to Maple Woods Community College. He put up good numbers, but he was a puzzlement to pro scouts, the body a little bit soft and the feet slow. They weren't sure where to play him, some of them wondering if maybe he should be converted into a catcher. The Cardinals made him a 13th-round pick in the 1999 draft, the 402nd player taken overall.

He was frustrated by his failure to go higher in the draft-insulted, really. He told his wife, Deidre, that if he didn't make it into the big leagues in two years he was going to give up the game. In hindsight, he doubts he would have followed through. But the possibility became moot; he made it to the big leagues in just over a year. Given his rapid advance, the Cardinals had an obvious awareness of him when he came to spring training in 2001. They knew he could hit, but could he hit big league pitching? La Russa got his answer during an intrasquad game, when Pujols hit one over the leftfield wall, through a window and into the offices of the Montreal Expos.

But it wasn't just the raw power. There was something else, a hitting intelligence made all the more remarkable by the fact that Pujols was only 21. "As pitchers made adjustments to him, he made the adjustments to deal with it," says Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "He might look bad in a particular at-bat or a couple of particular at-bats, and then all of a sudden they'd try to do the same thing, and he'd be all over it."

Pujols was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2001, hitting .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs. His numbers were similar in his second year. In his third year he won the batting title, with a .359 average. In his fourth year and now his fifth, there has been no production drop-off.

To La Russa, the pivotal point came off the field, on Feb. 20, 2004, when Pujols signed a seven-year, $100 million contract. It was Pujols' first taste of big baseball money, and La Russa, who's been managing for more than a quarter century, has seen what big baseball money can do. The skipper knows the creep of self-satisfaction that sometimes settles into a player once he gets his millions: if he gets two hits in the first two or three at-bats, he's all too willing to mail it in after that. But Pujols was different: if he went 2-for-2, he wanted 3-for-3; if he went 3-for-3, he wanted 4-for-4. He never felt satisfied, and in 2003 La Russa called Pujols the best player he had ever managed. But, out of habit, he braced himself. Would Pujols change? "He came out as determined and competitive as ever," La Russa says.

Pujols still has his hunger, but he also has what La Russa may prize even more: selflessness in this age of selfishness. He takes joy in the accomplishments of others. He likes the idea of assuming the stance of el hombre, and then laying down a bunt. CLEMENS COMES back with a sinker out and over the plate. Refusing temptation, Pujols looks it in to make the count 2-1. The fourth pitch is a hanging splitter, middle in, and here comes the Pujols swing, through the ball with what La Russa describes as a "productive high-average stroke." It smokes down the leftfield line, but foul. The count is even.

The next one's a slider. It's a good pitch, tough to get on top of, and Pujols fouls it back. With the count still locked at 2-2, Clemens throws his best pitch of the at-bat, a slider down and away below Pujols' knees. It's a bastard pitch, what makes Clemens the old master, and Pujols just tries to go with it, battle it into somewhere, the very definition of a great hitter who knows his limitations as well as his strengths. He strokes it up the middle for a single. A small payoff, to be sure, but hang on-it's only the beginning.

Pujols moves to second on a fielder's choice by the next batter, Jim Edmonds, and then Larry Walker walks to put runners on first and second with one out. Clemens throws a ball in the dirt to the next hitter, So Taguchi. It trickles away from catcher Brad Ausmus, who's one of the best in the game. Most baserunners would stay put, but Pujols is off. It's an aggressive move-some might say too aggressive, given that Pujols is a slow runner. But Clemens hasn't given up a hard-hit ball to anyone. His left leg may be gimpy, but he's still throwing nasty pitches. He's still hitting the black, and the calculation Pujols has made is that you have to seize on anything resembling an opportunity, because you might not get another one.

Ausmus makes his throw. Pujols makes his slide. The play is close, very close. But he's safe, and now only 90 feet from tying the game.

Taguchi dribbles a slow grounder to the left side. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg charges it, and he has a play at first, but there's a complication. In a designed play called from the bench, Pujols has taken off from third on contact. He's barreling down the line, and what he lacks in speed he makes up for in sheer physical force, like a blitzing linebacker with a clear shot at the quarterback.

The sight of a full-throttle Pujols has Ensberg in the baseball Death Valley of split-second hesitation. He's not sure where to make the play now. He elects to go home, but the throw is rushed and skitters away. Pujols scores the tying run, squeezed out singlehandedly by his attention to the details. Taguchi is safe at first, a bonus that contributes to a 2-1 advantage when Yadier Molina singles in Walker. The Cardinals ultimately win, 4-2; it's their 86th victory.

IT CAN be easily argued that this season has been Pujols' best in terms of what it has meant to the Cardinals. Last year, the modern-day murderers' row of Pujols and Edmonds and Scott Rolen had 110 homers through August. This season, with Rolen out for the year and Edmonds lagging at the plate, the number was 62, and Pujols had more than half the total. Still, the drumbeat for NL MVP honors is emanating from Atlanta, for Andruw Jones.

As their teams move toward a seemingly inevitable postseason clash, Pujols and Jones have something in common: neither has a World Series ring. "An MVP would be great for my trophy case," Pujols says, "but that ring is what it's all about."

In truth, that's not what it's all about for Albert Pujols. It's about the quality of the man, and how he responds to challenges of all types, in moments large and small. When, as an 18-year-old, Albert began dating his future wife, she told him she had recently given birth to a daughter, Isabella, who had Down's syndrome. Deidre wasn't sure she'd ever hear from Albert again. What teenager could possibly want such responsibility? But Albert embraced Isabella as if she were his own child. "She's doing great," he says with a smile.

It's the same smile that engulfs his face when he talks about how much he loves baseball. But it's even bigger.

What makes Albert Pujols great?

That smile.