Carrying the game isn’t pressure. Comforting that boy was.
“To me, that is more than Game 7 of the World Series, coming to bat in the ninth inning and having to hit a grand slam,” Pujols says. “Putting a smile on those kids’ faces, that right there — I changed that kid’s life. A home run isn’t going to change anybody’s life. It is probably going to make me more famous. But … who does that change? At the end of the day, at the end of my career, it’s really the things that I’ve done … to help people.
“You know, people say the bigger the name is, the more responsibility you have. I’m a big believer that I had a responsibility as soon I put this uniform on.”
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Pujols knew the weight of the world by age 10. That weight was his father, one arm draped over young Albert’s shoulder and ready to be taken home. Bienvenido Pujols was a standout pitcher in the Dominican Republic who introduced the game of baseball to his son by bringing him to his games. Then Albert would carry his father home. Alcoholism “transformed” his father. That weight is why Albert grew up early and doesn’t drink. He’s popped Champagne 13 times in nine years to mark division titles, pennants and the 2006 World Series championship.
He’s sprayed the bubbly but never sipped it.
After the family moved to a Kansas City, Mo., suburb when Albert was 16, baseball salved any homesickness. Although he starred at a local junior college, 401 players were taken before the Cardinals selected Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft. It’s a slight he still feels.
“I have been proving people wrong because they never thought that I would be in the big leagues. That drives me every day,” Pujols says, pounding a table to punctuate his words. “Any time you put a challenge in front of me, believe me, I’m going to push it, and I’m going to push it until I can’t go any more, and prove people wrong.”
Examples enrich his career. He rose swiftly through the minors, hitting the title-winning home run for the Cardinals’ AAA team Memphis Redbirds in 2000 and making the major-league opening day lineup in 2001. He had one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in decades with a .329 average, 37 home runs and 130 RBIs. Any doubt he could duplicate that year vaporized when he improved on it. In each of the next five seasons, he finished in the top three in MVP voting. In 2009, Pujols ended a unanimous MVP campaign without a home run in his final 89 at-bats and with bone chips that had to be removed from his elbow.
Naturally, he homered in his first at-bat of the 2010 season.
Pujols’ two-homer opening day left Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to marvel: “That’s why there is nobody better playing in the game than him.” La Russa has the third-most wins for a manager in history, and he’s fond of pet phrases like “tied for first” to avoid comparisons from four decades as manager. La Russa surrendered his clichés for Pujols. He calls him the best he’s ever seen.