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PUJOLSMORE THAN THE GAME
By SCOTT LAMB TIM ELLSWORTH
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Walter S. Lamb a/k/a Scott Lamb and Timothy W. Ellsworth a/k/a Tim Ellsworth
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Highway's Jammed with Broken Heroes
There was too much Albert Pujols today. —Jim Tracy, Pittsburgh Pirates manager, September 3, 2006
The bronzed Latino approached the batter's box and performed the necessary rituals. Dug in with the right foot. Tapped the back of home plate with the bat. Glanced toward the small dirt mound just sixty feet to the left.
Another man stood atop that hill and worked through rituals of his own—groin-scratching, spitting, signaling, more scratching. He prepared himself for the sophisticated hurling of a small sphere made of cork, twine, and leather—otherwise known as a baseball.
A grizzled broadcaster looked down from the media booth where he sat behind his microphone, describing the on-field action with familiar terms and labels: fastball, changeup, curveball, slider.
But for the man at the plate wearing jersey number 5, the "perfect opportunity" pitch was the delivery he looked for, the delivery he knew would come. Only then would he swing his maple bat in an arc of geometric beauty and poetic power.
It was a Sunday game on the third of September, 2006. Gone was the sticky heat of the St. Louis summer, replaced with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-seventies. Early autumn made a perfect day for baseball, a fact not lost on the forty thousand fans who were soon to arrive.
This was the inaugural year of baseball in the red-brick home that some locals still called the new Busch Stadium, a reminder of past baseball glory and civic pride. On the tenth of April, Albert Pujols had become the first Cardinal to hit a home run in the new digs. He'd gone on to smash fourteen homers that month, a Major League Baseball record for April.
But now it was September, the last month of the grinding regular season. Just ten days earlier, the Cardinals had been locked in a tie for first place in the National League Central Division with the Cincinnati Reds. By the time the perennial cellar-dwelling Pirates came into town for a weekend series, the Cardinals had pulled away from the pack. A win today would put them a full six games ahead of the Reds. To get the win, though, they would have to beat Ian Snell, ace pitcher for the Pirates.
Pujols knew this day would bring special joy. It was Buddy Walk in the Park Day, when children with Down syndrome went on field during pregame ceremonies, rubbing shoulders and running the bases with big leaguers. Pujols walked around the field meeting countless numbers of children. While it would be fair to say these youngsters came to see a baseball game, in reality they came to see Pujols. Their joy would become his joy. Indeed, they were his buddies, and he was their hero.
Pujols stooped down and got on the level of a talkative ten-year-old boy, eye-to-eye and ear-to-ear, and listened to the exuberance of innocent baseball fervor.
Then the boy made his request—a home run. He wanted a home run from Pujols.
"I'll see what I can do," Pujols said with a smile.
Another child approached, leaned forward, and spoke into Pujols' ear.
It was the same request—just a home run. Today. Please. Thank you.
Pujols smiled big and assured each child he would try his best to hit one out today.
Although his response to the kids dripped with confidence, it didn't flow from pride in his abilities. Rather, Pujols simply knew from experience that when the stadium rocked with the cheers of thousands of children with Down syndrome, special things just seemed to happen.
Buddy Walk Day and Pujols had been good to each other in the past: In 2002, Pujols had hit a home run and driven in three runs. In 2003, he'd again hit a home run, this time in a dramatic thirteenth-inning win over Houston.
Did the kids understand just how hard it was to hit a home run off a major league pitcher? Probably not.
Nevertheless, even as they ran back to their parents and their peanuts and their Cracker Jack, they basked in a joy that can only come from meeting one's hero and asking him to smash the ball over the wall ... "for me."
After the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the first inning was underway. The last of the fans filed into their seats with a hot dog in one hand and a cold drink in the other.
Most of the crowd was clothed in Cardinal red, with a few Pittsburgh fans sporting grey, black, and gold. Some of these had "Clemente" stitched on their back—a noble name worthy of remembrance. Like those Pirates fans, St. Louisans appreciate baseball history and baseball heroes, especially their own: Musial, Gibson, Brock, Sutter, and Ozzie.
The Cards made quick work of the Pirates in the top half of the first—three up and three down—and headed back to the dugout for their turn at-bat.
On Snell's fifth pitch, Cards second baseman Aaron Miles grounded to the Pirates' first baseman, Ryan Doumit, for the first out.
Right-fielder Chris Duncan then stepped up to the plate and quickly fell into an 0–2 hole. He watched the next three pitches go by for balls, making it a full count. The next pitch looked like a gem, but Duncan swung through it for strike three.
So with two outs and nobody on base, Pujols walked up to the plate for his first at-bat of the day.
The first pitch was low; ball one.
Pujols readied himself for the second pitch. Though only the first inning, the stadium was electric in anticipation. Probably even a beer vendor or two twisted his neck to see the action on the field.
Snell wound and delivered.
A quick swing of the bat and seconds later the baseball landed 410 feet away in left-field seats. Pujols' fortieth home run of the season gave the Cards an early 1–0 lead.
Dozens of delirious Buddy Walk kids simultaneously had the same thought—Albert Pujols hit me a home run!
And so he did. Because heroes do heroic things—for others.
Vin Scully, Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers, once quipped, "Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination."
That is, statistics don't provide the full measure of an individual baseball player's impact on his team or on his era. For that, you need stories—lots of stories. You get the stories from loving the game, and this love affair demands faithful watching, listening, playing, and reading. And this is a romance with multigenerational rewards, for these are the stories you will tell your kids, and your kids will tell your grandkids.
If you don't own any of these stories yet yourself, then just listen in on guys like Scully or Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon and borrow some of theirs. They won't mind.
Pujols hustled around the bases. No showboating. No Jeffrey Leonard "one flap down." Pujols knew all too well that even great baseball players with a batting average of .300 will still fail at the plate seven times out of ten. This time up he got the big hit, but the next three times he could just as likely produce an out.
Did you notice what just happened? Right there, in the very act of telling a good home-run story, we ended up talking statistics and batting averages—and for good reason. Though the stories do illuminate, it is the stats that give support to phrases like one of the all-time greats.
If baseball math isn't your thing, then go ahead and skip the next page or two. But, if you like your baseball heroes smothered in a thick gravy of amazing stats, then Pujols is your man, and this section is for you.
It's no wonder Pujols routinely tops the list of the greatest players in modern Major League Baseball. Even before turning thirty, he had accrued batting totals that most players only hope to gain over the course of an entire career.
Among all major leaguers who ever played the game, Pujols already ranks in the top twenty in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and on base plus slugging (adjusted for league and ballpark effects). In simple terms, he is already one of the twenty greatest offensive players in baseball history.
Pujols hit 201 home runs in his first five seasons, placing him in second place all-time for the most homers hit during a player's first five years. Not stopping there, in 2009 he reached the 350–home run mark at a younger age than anyone except Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. By doing so, he also surpassed the record for most home runs in the first nine years of a career, breaking the mark established by Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner way back in 1954.
And speaking of nine seasons, Pujols now stands as the only player ever to begin a career with ten consecutive years of thirty home runs and a hundred runs batted in.
Take a deep breath. We're just getting started.
Pujols owns the Cardinals franchise record for most career grand slams, having surpassed a guy known as Stan the Man.
When compared to legends of the game, Pujols stands alongside Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio as one of only four players to have less than five hundred career strikeouts and a career batting average over .330 at the time they hit their three-hundredth home run.
Yankee hero Lou Gehrig posted nine consecutive seasons with thirty doubles, a .300 batting average, thirty home runs, and one hundred runs batted in. Has anyone else accomplished this feat? Nobody except Pujols, and he has now accomplished this feat for ten consecutive years.
In more than one hundred years of National League baseball, nobody ranks ahead of Pujols in extra base hits (744) within the first 5,000 career at-bats. He gets around a lot.
He has led the Cards to postseason play year after year, and to the World Series twice, winning it all in 2006.
And what about individual awards?
Pujols is a three-time National League MVP (Most Valuable Player), a three-time winner of the ESPY Award (best MLB player), and a nine-time NL All-Star. In 2003, he won the NL batting title and subsequently won the Hank Aaron Award (given each year to only one player in each league) for hitting prowess. On defense, he won a Gold Glove in 2006. He has earned Player of the Month honors six times, won the NL Silver Slugger award six times, and was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2001. In 2009, a sports columnist placed Pujols' offensive stats in historical perspective when he wrote, "If Pujols plays only nine more years and simply averages the numbers he put up in his worst season to date, he would retire at 38 with a career average around .330 and rank fifth on the all-time list in home runs (659), fourth in RBIs (2,035) and in the top 10 in runs (2057) and walks (1,792). Only Babe Ruth has done better."
Those kinds of stats both illuminate and support.
It was the bottom of the third inning, and the Cardinals still led 1–0.
After fighting off several pitches, Aaron Miles swung for strike three. One out.
Next up was Chris Duncan.
Chris is the son of Dave Duncan, the revered pitching-coach guru for the Cardinals. Dave played eleven seasons as a catcher before turning to coaching and has worked with Cards manager Tony La Russa for nearly three decades and on three different teams. So, Chris had been around a lot of baseball in his life, and a good portion of it had come in proximity to his father.
For Pujols and his "Papá," Bienvenido, the father-son relationship worked itself out a little differently. Pujols didn't see him all that much, being raised instead by his grandma América, alongside aunts and uncles who shared common living quarters there in the Dominican Republic.
But when it came to baseball, Pujols knew he wanted to be like his father. Bienvenido was known throughout the island for his pitching prowess and great passion for the game. In like manner, from the earliest days of childhood, Albert played ball whenever and wherever he could. Yes, he would be like Papá.
Duncan singled on a line drive that dropped in front of right fielder Xavier Nady. From the dugout, Dave took fatherly pride in his son's accomplishments. With Duncan on first and only one out, Pujols walked up to the plate for his second at-bat. Snell strategized how to go after him this time around. He made his decision, and he then made his pitch.
The loud crack of Pujols' bat echoed off the shining steel of the Gateway Arch and killed some pigeons in flight. Well, maybe not, but it was a thunderous thwack.
As Yogi Berra said, "It's déjà vu all over again." The Pirates certainly felt that way as Pujols hit his second home run of the day over the same left field wall. Into the stands went the ball, and onto the scoreboard went two more runs. The Cards now led 3–0.
With two home runs in two at-bats, Buddy Walk Day was going very well indeed.
As Pujols again rounded the bases and crossed home plate, he pointed to the sky, acknowledging God as the source of all athletic skill and talent. Then, as he glanced up into the stadium at the fans celebrating with him, he saw families having fun—enjoying the game and enjoying one another.
Being a hero to large numbers of baseball fans must feel great. Being a hero to buddies with Down syndrome must be even better. But being a hero to your own family—nothing beats that.
So, what does it mean to be a hero to your own family?
To Pujols' wife, Dee Dee, being a hero means fidelity, honesty, abiding love, and friendship. To his children, being a hero means time, talk, and taking interest.
To Pujols' father, grandma, and the extended family that helped raise him, being a hero means upholding the family's standards of integrity, instilled in him by word and "whoopin'." Pujols once explained why he had never used steroids, saying that his family would be "embarrassed and disappointed because it would be stupid." He said, "That's not the way I grew up. Papá would give me a whoopin'. I can't make you believe what I stand for. I can only tell you my story."
Pujols' story is of one being a hero in his own home. Because heroes do heroic things for their families.
As the bottom of the fifth rolled around, the scoreboard still displayed 3–0 in favor of the Cardinals, and Snell remained on the mound for the Pirates.
Once again Duncan singled, and once again Pujols walked to the plate.
But Pujols didn't want to become too predictable. Rather than hitting a home run to left field, this time he sent the ball over the center field fence. Sometimes you've just got to shake things up a bit.
Snell was a great sport about the shellacking he took from Pujols that day. During the postgame interview he said, "I hung it, and he banged it. I thought it was going to hit the St. Louis Arch out there. I wanted to go high-five him. That's unreal. That's like Superman playing baseball."
Many fans, especially the young ones, dream about living the life of a baseball superstar, imagining the pleasures of stockpiled fortune and fame. Albert and Deidre Pujols have given clear testimony, however, that Jesus Christ is at the center of their lives, providing meaning, purpose, and direction. They talk and walk their Christianity and their commitment to faith, family, others. Pujols writes:
People have said to me, "Albert, I would give anything to be able to play baseball like you." They may look at my abilities and think that being a great baseball player is the goal of my life. Believe it or not, baseball is not the chief ambition of my life. Becoming a great baseball player is important to me, but it is not my primary focus. Because I know the Hall of Fame is not my ultimate final destination. My life's goal is to bring glory to Jesus. My life is not mostly dedicated to the Lord, it is 100% committed to Jesus Christ and His will. God has given me the ability to succeed in the game of baseball. But baseball is not the end; baseball is the means by which my wife, Dee Dee, and I glorify God. Baseball is simply my platform to elevate Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.
When Albert and Dee Dee Pujols talk about faith, it is a word loaded with real content. In a day and age when churches and denominations seem afraid to speak unequivocally about doctrinal commitments, a first baseman in the MLB comes forth with a ten-point statement of faith nearly four hundred words long.
Excerpted from PUJOLS by SCOTT LAMB TIM ELLSWORTH Copyright © 2011 by Walter S. Lamb a/k/a Scott Lamb and Timothy W. Ellsworth a/k/a Tim Ellsworth. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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