Pujols living up to lofty accolades

Tony La Russa's managed in the bigs for nearly 25 years. So how can a 23-year-old be the best player he's ever had?

Originally Published: June 17, 2003
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

The numbers thump on our doorsteps every morning like the newspapers that contain them, bundles of hits, ribbies and homers that land with the heaviness of history. With every 5-2-2-3 statline, Albert Pujols only adds to the growing weightiness of his amazing early career, a young star every day gaining mass and gravity.

Albert Pujols
Pujols is on pace for 49 homers and 125 RBI.

From a distance, the numbers twinkle around him like constellations: A .380 batting average (tops in the majors), .772 slugging percentage (ditto), 1.168 OPS (ditto) and home run and RBI totals (21 and 65, respectively) ominously within triple-crown range. After two seasons that averaged .321-36-129, perhaps the best statistics of any young player in the history of the game, this 23-year-old is clearly in the same ethereal orbit in which Frank Thomas revolved 10 years ago.

But close up, seen through the eyes of those who share his St. Louis uniform, the awe for Pujols is more intimate. It isn't the statistics that draw the ooohs and aaahs. It is the way he arrives at them.

Matt Morris: "In Boston the other day, a lefty goes 3-0 on him, three pitches that weren't even close. The fourth pitch is a ball, too, up and way away, and he crushes it the other way. It's just unbelievable what he does. His body isn't moving all over. He makes his adjustment, throws his hands at the pitch and slams it with a real short stroke."

Hitting coach Mitchell Page: "His mind is way above his ability. Guys might have all the tools in the world, but they don't have the mind this guy has. He helps me out, with the other players. The guy has three years in the big leagues and he's saying things that people listen to. If it was Rod Carew after 15-20 years, that's one thing. But when Albert talks, people listen."

Scott Rolen: "The pitcher usually controls the at-bat, and the hitter has to make the adjustments. But Albert controls the at-bat. The pitcher has to find a way to get him out, to trick him. You can't just come in and then go away, 'cause he's gonna hammer it. You can't go up and down, 'cause he's gonna hammer it. You'd better throw three good pitches."

These testimonials don't even include a whopper from Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. A man who picks his words with the precision of butterfly tweezers, La Russa finally decided to reveal what he has sensed since Pujols began mashing two years ago: "He is the best player I've ever had." Considering that La Russa's charges over his 25 years have included MVP's Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson, not to mention a certain 70-homer man named Mark McGwire (see box below), the comment raised eyebrows over cap rims around the major leagues. "Mark saw Pujols his rookie year," La Russa explains. "I think he'd understand."

We knew he was gonna be a pretty good player, but nothing like the numbers he's put up.
Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty

Pujols has been mounting his current scary season despite a sprained right elbow ligament he injured while making an awkward throw from left field in mid-April. For more than six weeks the Cardinals, needing his bat, played him but made special arrangements. Shortstop Edgar Renteria would run out deep into the outfield to shorten relay throws, and center fielder Jim Edmonds would scamper over to yell reminders at Pujols not to cut loose with his damaged arm. The ligament will probably hurt all season and has given opponents an extra base here and there, but has been increasingly less of an issue.

The injury never has bothered him at the plate, as if his performance didn't already prove that. During a 13-game homestand from May 26-June 8 he went 26-for-57 (.456). Near the end of that stretch was a bases-clearing double against Orioles closer Jorge Julio that won the game 8-6. "It was a 97-, 98-mile-an-hour fastball on the inside corner, and he smokes it down the line," Rolen said. "He shouldn't be able to do that with that pitch. But he pulled his hands in with an incredible knowledge of where the bat head was. He has so much confidence in his swing and his approach at the plate, he had the confidence to stay with the ball and rope it like that."

Pujols' ability to make adjustments -- both before and during at-bats -- is what teammates claim separates him from even other All-Stars. "It's kind of fun to see a guy jam him one time and the next time pitch him in," La Russa said, "and Albert takes a fastball inside and pops it to left field." Pujols has adopted tee drills from Alex Rodriguez that he declines to discuss, bristling as if he had the Coke formula.

"I just try to go out there and see the ball, stick with my routine that I've been doing the last few years and don't try to do too much," Pujols said. "It's been working for me the last three years, so I don't want to change it."

The best of the best
Tony La Russa, in his 25th year as a major league manager, calls Albert Pujols the best player he has ever had. Here are the top five other players La Russa has had with the White Sox, A's and Cardinals:

Rickey Henderson: Arriving in midseason 1989 with Oakland in time to help La Russa win his only World Series ring, Henderson captured his only MVP the following year and put in several more productive leadoff seasons.

Mark McGwire: Big Mac played all but 1½ of his seasons under La Russa in both Oakland and St. Louis. Reunited after his trade to the Cardinals in July 1997, McGwire celebrated by hitting 159 home runs in his next 359 games.

Jose Canseco: La Russa unleashed Canseco to become the majors' first-ever 40-40 man in 1988, when he won the MVP and was widely considered baseball's best player. Star of three straight pennant winners.

Carlton Fisk: After changing Sox following the 1980 season, Fisk enjoyed some of his finest years under La Russa, helping Chicago to a division title in 1983 and blasting 37 homers in 1985.

Scott Rolen: He's been in St. Louis for less than one year, but Rolen is simply the major leagues' best third baseman (.934 OPS), blossoming anew under the cerebral La Russa rather than the maniacal Larry Bowa. Center fielder's Ray Lankford and Jim Edmonds have also played at their best for La Russa.
-- Alan Schwarz

After going 0-for-4 against the Yankees on Saturday, Pujols said, "If I feel like I'm jumping out there like I think I was today, I try to come out tomorrow and try to work on staying back and hit the ball the other way. Just try to relax and concentrate." Pujols did his drills Sunday morning and promptly homered against Mike Mussina.

"I don't want to take anything for granted," Pujols said. "I want to do my work, so I think that's the best thing to help me out ... to concentrate on the game."

For someone who has left no doubt as to his ability from the moment he made the Cardinals out of 2001 spring training -- because of an injury to Bobby Bonilla, of all things -- it's hard to believe that Pujols was once not even good enough to land a pro contract. Living in the Dominican Republic seven years ago, he went to tryout camps of the A's and Marlins but says he was turned away. "I was with the A's for probably five days in their camp," Pujols recalls. He only entered organized baseball after his family moved to Independence, Mo., and he was drafted by the Cardinals in the 13th round.

For St. Louis, the only downside to Pujols' meteoric rise is his contract situation, which is, in a word, unsettled. While some teams have locked up young stars (the Red Sox with Nomar Garciaparra and the Phillies with Pat Burrell) long-term after just one or two seasons in the majors, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty has taken Pujols only year by year. Pujols is making $900,000 this season but could have a field day in arbitration over the winter, throwing out numbers to make an arbitrator downright vertiginous.

"Part of it is we've been trying to get a better feel of the economics of the industry, and our own economics -- we're trying to get a stadium built," Jocketty explains. "Once we have some certainty on that it will help us with some of the financial projections over the next few years."

Jocketty said that the current upturn in the stock market should help, and says he expects a long-term deal for Pujols before any arbitration hearing. "Any regrets? No," Jocketty said of waiting. "We knew he was gonna be a pretty good player, but nothing like the numbers he's put up."

Sure enough, after finishing fourth in the 2001 MVP voting and second last year to Barry Bonds, Pujols seems locked in on taking the final step to his first such award this year, particularly if the Cardinals right their current slide (four straight losses) to overtake the Astros and Cubs in the NL Central. A triple crown does not seem far-fetched, perhaps as early as this season.

"I'm having a great year so far and just want to keep going and try to get better and better. I don't think about that stuff," Pujols said. "It was great to finish last year behind Barry Bonds, who is probably the best player right now in this game. But something like that, my time is going to come, hopefully. Hopefully, I play for 10-15 more years in this game and hopefully I can win all that. But I don't think about it. I don't live for it. I just try to get ready -- physically and mentally."

In the meantime, we should get mentally ready for perhaps one of the best pure hitters of this century, with Pujols putting up numbers that could eclipse some of the brightest in baseball's ever-widening sky. Only pitchers should hide their eyes.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.

ALSO SEE