In his ninth season in the MLB, Cardinals do it all 1B Albert Pujols is having arguably his best season in an almost perfect career. Coming into the major leagues in 2001, Pujols, a 13th round selection, was reletively unknown and nobody even Tony LaRussa knew what he would do in his next nine years.
Hailing from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the same city home to stars such as Manny Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, Pujols and his family moved to the United States when he was 16, in 1996, to New York City. Less than a year later, the Pujols family once again moved to Independence, Missouri, where Albert played his high school ball at Fort Osage High School. During his senior year in 1998, Pujols batted over .700, and hit a home run once every five at bats due to the immense amount of intentional walks he drew. Still unknown and underrated, Pujols enrolled at Maple Woods Community College. In his only season in college, Pujols batted .471, and remarkably in his first game, the slugger hit a grand slam and turned an unassisted triple play.
Going into the 1999 draft, most major league teams either didn’t know of Pujols or weren’t interested in him. Of the few teams interested were the Colorado Rockies and the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa Bay conducted a tryout with Albert, but after a poor showing, the Rays refused to draft him. Finally with the 402nd pick, the St. Louis Cardinals took a chance and little did they know, they would cash in. Going through every level of the St. Louis farm system in 2000, Pujols was named MVP of the AA league and would be a roster invite for spring training the following year.
Spring Training 2001, would be the most sentimental for a franchise yearning the loss of power after Mark McGwire went down with injuries, but I’m not here to talk about the past so I wont mention why he was injured. After a very strong performance in spring training, the Cardinals were intending to send Pujols to AAA-Memphis but after an injury to the current Third Baseman Bobby Bonilla, LaRussa decided to let the rookie play. In only his third game, Pujols homered, had three doubles and eight RBI’s against the Colorado Rockies. That performance was enough to keep Pujols on the team. After a strong April, Pujols was named National League Rookie of the Month, by the end of the first half, Pujols became the first Cardinal rookie to make the team since 1955. By the end of the season, Pujols showed that his first half performance wasn’t a fluke, as the rookie he hit 37 home runs, and 131 RBI’s, an NL rookie record and had a batting average at .329. These statistics were more than enough, as #5 went on to win NL Rookie of the Year, the same year Ichiro Suzuki won AL MVP along with AL Rookie of the Year. Pujols wasn’t the only one performing at a high level for St. Louis, as the Cardinals tied for the Central Divison lead. They would later be eliminated from the playoffs by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went on to win the World Series.
Preventing a sophomore slump, Pujols worked harder than ever in the off-season and the results showed on the field as Pujols batted .314, with 34 HR’s and 127 RBI’s. The main reason for the drop off in batting average, which is still Pujols’ low for his career, was a switch in positions as in his rookie season, Pujols played right, left and third and in ‘02 was forced to play first base as the roided Mark McGwire retired. The Cardinals won the Central Division for the second consecutive year but were defeated by Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. Bonds also defeated Pujols in the MVP balloting, but the second place finish would not deter his production on the field. His career was just taking off and nobody would stop the launch.
2003, remember this year, and most Cardinals fans can imagine this season very vividly. Out of anyone in St. Louis history, nobody had a better offensive year. Only Pujols would top this year. Batting an astonishing .359, Albert put 43 home runs out of the park along with 124 RBI’s. Even though the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs, Pujols lead the league in runs, hits, doubles, extra base hits, and total bases along with winning the NL Batting Title. This season looked as if nobody could top him for MVP balloting, but once again Pujols was defeated by Barry Bonds and his 45 home runs. At the age of 23, Pujols became the youngest player in ML history to win a batting title. If you think this is great, more is to come.
Before I go on to the 2004 season, let’s sit back and elaborate on just what he does for the Cardinals lineup. Nobody in baseball hits more doubles, and hits for more power than Albert. To add to that, Pujols does more than just hit. In a vote on Sports Illustrated among pitchers on every team, Pujols was unanimously voted as the Most Feared Hitter in Baseball. To put that in perspective, in a game against the Colorado Rockies in 2004, manager Clint Hurdle walked Pujols with the bases loaded to cut the game to one run. Even managers fear the slugger, to walk in a run with the bases loaded shows much fear and Pujols supplies that. Nobody has more power and influence with a bat in their hands than does the 30 year old, who with his knees bent and bat straight in the air, is the stance of death for opposing pitchers.
Arguably the happiest part of the 2004 season for Cardinal fans took place before the season even started. With a year left on his contract, Pujols signed an extension with St. Louis until 2011, a deal that removed any contract issues from the minds of players and manager Tony LaRussa which eventually lead to the World Series appearance the Cardinals made. Battling plantar fasciitis, an injury that seemed to not phase the slugger one bit as Pujols hit .331 with 46 HR’s and 124 RBI’s. In a postseason dominated by the unimaginable comeback of the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, St. Louis quitely crept into the October Classic beating Roger Clemens and the Houston Astros. With the Red Sox riding a four game winning streak, Pujols did all he could in the series, batting .333 with two doubles. The Cards were no match for Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox, getting swept four games to none.
Finally in 2005, the fifth year veteran Pujols finally established himself as the best player in the league. Batting .330 with 41 HR’s, 117 RBI’s along with setting career highs in walks, and stolen bases. Leading the Cardinals to the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Houston Astros avenged their loss the previous year by way of Carlos Beltran, who hit 15 HR’s, just in the postseason. Losing the NLCS 4-2, Pujols vowed to himself that he would win a title and never have the distinction hanging over him. If he wanted to be the best, he would have to beat the best, and that meant a ring.
With many great athletes, they are great on the field but not so much off. This is the complete opposite for Pujols. In my opinion, he is a greater contributor off the field than on. With his wife Deidre, whom married in 2000, the couple has founded a foundation to benefit the awareness of Down Syndrome. The two started the cause when they met, Pujols still a minor leaguer, was committed to helping out Deidre’s daughter, who was not Pujols’, and has Down Syndrome. At one point, Pujols considered quitting baseball to be there for Isabella. Now nine years later, Pujols who founded the Pujols Family Foundation, a charity that funds awareness for Down Syndrome, puts in thousands of dollars each year. To me, the action he has done with the foundation triumphs any achievement on the field.
Furthermore, 2006 is a year that rings loud among fans of the Cardinals everywhere. Starting off on an astonishing pace, hitting 14 home runs in April, which is still the record for a season, Pujols jumped out to 25 HR’s and 65 RBI’s by late May. At that point, nothing was in the way to stop Pujols from breaking Barry Bonds’ HR record and Hack Wilson’s RBI record. Well he was stopped, while chasing a foul ball, Pujols suffered an oblique strain, which landed him on the DL for the first time in his career. The injury didn’t stop the Cardinals, as he returned in time to help St. Louis win the NL Central. Still an All-Star, Pujols finished the year with 49 HR’s and 137 RBI’s. Once again, Pujols finished second in MVP voting but this time to Ryan Howard. Albert may have finished second in the MVP balloting, but after the 2006 postseason, the Cardinals were on top of the world. After cruising to reach the World Series, St. Louis defeated Placido Polanco, one of Pujols’ closest friends, and the cinderella Detroit Tigers 4-1. This ring was very instrumental in the formation of Pujols’ career, which seems to not have a smudge on the entire resume.
What made the 2006 season even better was that Pujols not only improved his offensive game but he increased his fielding tremendously. After garnering recognition as one of the best fielding first basemen, Pujols won the NL Gold Glove. Among all first basemen, Pujols had the highest range factor in the major leagues. For his first six years in the league it looked as if Pujols was the most natural player in the game since Ted Williams and formed Cardinals hitting coach Mike Easler put it this way:
“He (Albert Pujols) has a passion for the game, a love for the game. You can see it. You can sense it. He’s got natural God-given ability. A natural baseball player. A warrior. The man is good at every little thing he does.”
Following a magical 2006 campaign, Pujols 2007 season is described as his worst ever. That’s a funny fact considering Pujols set career lows in home runs and RBI’s, only hitting 32 bombs and only driving in 102 runs. Off to a rough start in the spring due to complications with his right elbow, Pujols got everything back on track as in late August, with his 30th home run, Pujols became the first player in major league history to ever hit 30 home runs in their first seven seasons. The hot streak at the end of the season, only built towards the hype in 2008.
The 2008 season was a season full of milestones for Pujols who hit his 300th career double in April along with his 300th home run later in the season. The streak that is reletively unknown is that through April and May, Pujols reached base 42 games in a row. By the end of the season, Pujols had a batting average of .357, with 37 HR’s and 116 RBI’s. This season was enough for Pujols to be voted as NL MVP for the second time in his career and Pujols also won the coveted Roberto Clemente Award, given to player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team. The Clemente Award, which was the first time he has won it in his career, was one that Pujols will never forget as it really showed the accomplishments he has achieved off the field.
This season in 2009, is arguably Pujols’ greatest of his career. Through 96 games, Pujols leads the major leagues in HR’s, RBI’s, R, OBP, SLG, OPG, TB, and intentional walks. In a season where he has hit 34 HR’s and drove in drove in 90 runs, Pujols is far ahead of anyone in the game and the scary thing is, he is just entering his prime. With a .328 batting average, all Pujols needs to do is increase it every month and he will become the first player to win the NL Triple Crown since Joe Medwick in 1937, who also played for the Cardinals. Barring injury, another MVP this season will only add to the career Pujols has put together and expect these results for years to come. With 353 on his career, it’s more than likely that Pujols will pass Barry Bonds for first all time on the home run list. Already 73rd all-time, it’s more than reasonalbe to expect such a result from him. With a seemingly perfect ‘09 campaign, three MVP’s in nine years looks like another achievement to list on the Albert Pujols hall of fame resume.
The earlier quote by Easler basically sums it up, with every hit, every swing, every diving play in the field, an aura comes off the man known as “The Machine,” and every on in attendance witnesses it. Being the youngest player to ever hit 350 home runs, we may be looking at history. As each slugger of our era crumbles with steroid allegations, Pujols remains clean and builds on an already perfect career. In nine seasons, Pujols has never hit below .314, never has hit less than 32 home runs and never drove in less than 103 RBI’s. With each passing year, it seems like the aura gets stronger, and the player gets better and popularity soars for a man that does it the right way. The future remains to be seen, but if Albert Pujols retired today, his place would be cemented in the Hall of Fame as the best player to ever play the game.