Baseball is running out of adjectives for Pujols. Former MLB manager Felipe Alou said he’s as “real close” to perfect as baseball allows. Seattle Mariners pitcher Ian Snell once said it’s like watching “Superman playing baseball.” Occasions rise to him. It starts with his signature batting stance. He starts low, with his knees bent and his head still, upright like a hawk’s. He glares at the pitcher, his tongue peeking out from the left side of his mouth and tucking into the corner as if checking for crumbs from the last pitch he devoured. His swing is a thunderclap.
“We were talking about it on the bench and couldn’t figure it out — what is it about him?” asks Mets outfielder and All-Star Jason Bay. “What does he do? … Is it his eyesight? Is it his swing? No one could come up with an answer. He just plays at a different level.”
The work to remain at that level consumes Pujols. Nothing, not even the taffy pull of increased demand as a spokesman, sidetracks him. He is as careful with his influences as he is with his swing. Two years after a teammate asked him for an autographed bat, Pujols still remembered and handed one to the pitcher — but not before saying he didn’t want to see it posted on eBay. He wasn’t kidding.
Pujols’ wariness, specifically of the media, was underscored when steroid allegations landed in his living room. In December 2007, baseball released the Mitchell Report, an investigation of the steroid era. Pujols was watching television with his oldest son, A.J., when an erroneous report that Pujols had appeared on the list of alleged users was picked up by the St. Louis media. “Look in my eyes, baby,” Pujols recalls telling his tearful wife later. “You think I’m going to lie to you?”
Pujols repeatedly says he has not used steroids because of his refusal to “disrespect the game” and, bluntly, his “fear” of God. He worries that the false report caused fans to “second-guess” his numbers. It’s an unforgiving lesson: one mistake, one lapse, and everything he has done — the homers, the MVPs, even the off-field work and his cherished Roberto Clemente Award for humanitarian work — would be discolored.
“I just think, yes, we’re living in an era right now that any time a player gets caught, then everybody is guilty,” Pujols says. “Now a player hits 30, 40 homers and he must be on something. … What about (Babe) Ruth? What about Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio? There were great players back then, and I’m pretty sure they were clean. Why now in this era can’t there be somebody like a (Ryan) Howard or a (Ryan) Braun or myself — guys who have that talent? I can’t hit 47 home runs or 50 home runs because people will point fingers? To me, that’s not fair.”
The best of Pujols the player and Pujols the person converge for the uncanny each fall at Busch Stadium on what’s known as Buddy Walk day.
Not yet 20 when they met, Pujols fell for Dee Dee and her daughter, Isabella. They married when he was 19, and he later adopted Isabella, whose Down syndrome became an inspiration for his foundation. Buddy Walk in the Park is the nickname for Down Syndrome Awareness Day at the ballpark, and each year Pujols mingles with the kids, catches the ceremonial first pitch and inevitably fields wishes.
Hit a home run for me, says one kid.
Hit one for me, say several more.
At 2002’s Buddy Walk, he hit one in the first inning. In 2003, his homer came in the 13th inning to win the game. In 2006, after the annual chorus of requests, he hit a home run in the first inning, one in the third inning and another in the fifth inning. In 2008, he delivered in the first inning, his sixth promise kept in eight Buddy Walk days.
Not all days are as magical. Sometimes the game is cruel and Pujols is grumpy, and later Dee Dee has to reply to e-mailers saddened by Pujols’ nonresponse to a fan. Dee Dee writes an apology and later tells her husband how much a smile is worth. “Are they going to walk away saying ‘My hero is the best guy’?” she asks. “Or will they walk away saying ‘My hero is a big jerk’?” She encourages him, as she always has, to find the strength in their faith. That is their compass through stardom.
“We realized with the world hitting us head-on, going from no money to some money then to a lot of money … we latched on to our faith in a really, really big way,” Dee Dee says. “We both were, [like,] ‘This thing is going to rip our goodness right out from under [us] unless we get grounded to something.’ ”
Grounding is what draws Pujols back to the Dominican Republic. He’s taken dentists, eye doctors and dozens of beds to the poorest reaches. There are nights on the mission when he sits on the balcony at his hotel, a Bible in his hands, and looks to the stars to ask what he must do next. He can’t change things for every kid he meets, just as he cannot convince every fan who doubts. But he’s confident there are things he can do to try.
The goal isn’t to be remembered for his numbers. The goal is and has always been to be remembered for his deeds.
“If I can write a book, or if God would give me a notebook and say, ‘Put everything that you think is going to happen in your life,’ ” Pujols says, “I’m telling you, there’s no way I would have written it this perfect.”