As Major League Baseball emerges from its steroids era, Albert Pujols talks softly and carries a big stick — on and off the field. Photograph by Tom DiPace.

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The young Dominican boy with teeth that urgently needed to be removed didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand what the dentist, Michael Noble, DMD, was saying about abscesses and infection. He didn’t need to. The other kids leaving with fewer teeth were translation enough. As the boy’s sobs became anguish, Noble recognized familiar body language.

The boy was ready to run. Then Albert Pujols walked over.

The best player in professional baseball is an imposing figure even without a tight-fitting uniform or a bat in his hands. His 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame is replete with steel cords for forearms and hands massive enough to crush a baseball. Into those arms, Pujols scooped up the boy and let him melt until the tears stopped. Pujols, whose foundation organized this mission to bring dentists to the poorest locales in the Dominican Republic, soothed the boy. He spoke to him in Spanish. Pujols’ wife, Dee Dee, says he provided “that source of comfort for that moment.” A three-time National League Most Valuable Player, Pujols cradled the boy as the dentist pulled the infected teeth.

“You get the feeling that even with his notoriety, he is not just along for the ride,” Noble says. “His confidence became the child’s.”

In his 10th season in the majors and approaching this month’s All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., Pujols has already established himself as the greatest hitter of his generation. At the end of 2009, the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals became the first National League player since Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s to author a “decade triple crown,” leading the league for the entire 2000s in cumulative batting average (.334), home runs (366) and runs batted in (1,112). He is a metronome at the plate, good for 30 homers, a .300 average and 100 RBIs every year — underpinnings of a Hall of Famer. New York Mets third baseman David Wright once said that Pujols had “broadened the gap” between himself and his peers. That’s only partially true. Pujols has distanced himself from contemporaries. His peers are in Cooperstown.

Yet, the “best player in the game” moniker is an uneasy crown to wear. The sport is emerging from an era corroded by performance-enhancing drugs and toxic superstars, from 300-game winner Roger Clemens to three-time MVP Alex Rodriguez. Fallen king Mark McGwire acknowledged that he used steroids throughout the 1990s, and seven-time MVP Barry Bonds remains in purgatory awaiting judgment on a career warped by allegations.

Out from those shadows, Pujols — MVP, Nike and Got Milk? pitchman, St. Louis icon and humanitarian — ascends.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the black eye baseball has had the last seven, eight, 10 years, and corporate America is trying to find the new faces of the game who are clean,” says Dan Lozano, Pujols’ agent. “Do I think Albert is the appropriate guy to be that ‘best player’? If the public is looking for a baseball player who can be trusted as the best player in the game, who welcomes it, and who is intent on every day doing it the right way, Albert is that guy. Albert is ready for that.”

Pujols isn’t seeking such faith. He’s more intent on sharing his. He calls his career a “blessing from God.” That boy in the Dominican Republic, free of the infected teeth that threatened his health, was one of more than 800 people the dentists saw in 2007 during the mission, called Operation: Smile. The Pujols Family Foundation, established in 2005 to aid impoverished families in the Dominican and children with Down syndrome, has made four such mission trips to batey villages (shantytown camps) in the Dominican Republic.