Spirit of St. Louis
The Cardinals Albert Pujols provided more than just numbers in his rookie season
By Tom Haudricourt
Names such as Harold Baines, Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Mark McGwire were invoked, along with several others.
La Russa thought long and hard about that cream of the crop. Then the Cardinals manager contemplated the 2001 rookie season of Albert Pujols. And he uttered a statement that caught some of his dinner party by surprise.
"I said, I believe this is the best year by a position player that Ive ever watched, " La Russa says. "And I mean no disrespect to any of those other guys.
"I just think what this guy has done with batting average, clutch RBIs and good defense, I dont think Ive ever had a better one."
Which tells you all you need to know about the impact Pujols made in his first season with the Cardinals. It added up to enough for the 21-year-old to edge out the Mariners Ichiro Suzuki as Baseball Americas choice for Major League Rookie of the Year.
As the season wound down to its final days and the Cardinals surged to the National Leagues wild-card playoff berth, the young Dominican had compiled a list of incredible offensive numbers to propel the charge. He led the Cardinals in average (.329), home runs (37), doubles (47), RBIs (130) and runs (112).
No St. Louis player had won the teams triple crown since Ted Simmons in 1973, much less a rookie. But as remarkable as those numbers were, La Russa said there was much more to the story.
"This is a case where the numbers dont really paint enough of a picture of how important this guy has been," he says. "And thats saying a lot with his numbers."
Everyone agreed Pujols had wrapped up NL rookie of the year honors many weeks ago, beginning with rookie of the month honors in April and May. But a much bigger debate arose as the versatile infielder/outfielder led the Cardinals toward a playoff berth.
Pujols for MVP?
"It depends on how you define MVP," says Brewers manager Davey Lopes, who watched Pujols ravage his club all season. "I dont believe anybody can question the fact that he has been as valuable to the Cardinals as whomever you want to use: Barry (Bonds) has been to the Giants, Sammy (Sosa) has been to the Cubs or Luis (Gonzalez) has been to the Diamondbacks.
"I think people will look at the stats and say, Are you kidding? I believe what the MVP stands for: Where would the team be without him? You could say the same thing for the other three guys."
Not bad for someone who wasnt even supposed to make the St. Louis roster in spring training. Not wanting to rush the young prospect who began the 2000 season at low Class A Peoria, the Cardinals had no intention of keeping Pujols when camp opened.
But with each passing day, Pujols played better and better. By the time the exhibition season was half over, the idea of keeping him started to sound not as crazy.
"His teammates were the ones who started yapping, Come on, this guys got to be on the club, " La Russa says.
The opening Pujols needed appeared at the end of camp when Bobby Bonilla went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. With Mark McGwire limping on a surgically repaired knee that eventually landed him on the DL as well, the Cardinals decided to gamble and keep Pujols.
If Pujols was surprised by that decision, he never showed it.
"The whole time I was in spring training I thought I could make the team," he says. "I just went out there with the attitude to make it. Then it happened and I was very excited.
"I knew they were impressed with me and they would give me a chance. I went with the attitude to make the team and did the best that I can. I have been blessed this year."
Pujols pummeled pitchers so regularly in the early weeks of the season that La Russa moved him into the cleanup spot, something he never imagined doing with a rookie. But with McGwire unavailable for much of the first half, the middle of the batting order had to be stabilized.
"Because of slumps or injuries, hes had the responsibility of hitting right in the middle of the lineup. The original plan was to hit him sixth or seventh. Hes been so clutch. The only protection he has had is having a good hitter in front of him and behind him. But we havent had to hide him in the lineup or not expose him to the game being on his shoulders. That happens to those 3-4-5 hitters all along.
"To do all this with one year of experienceone year of professional experiencethis guy is really special. Special and incredible. Its hard to do what hes doing in this league, even if youve been around a long time."
Though Pujols was a baby in terms of professional baseball, he had prepared his entire life for this opportunity. The youngest of 11 children, he began playing baseball at age 5 in the Dominican Republic.
When Pujols was 16, his father moved the family to Independence, Mo., which has a large community of Dominican immigrants. He starred at Fort Osage High, leading the team to a state title as a junior, but he enrolled at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., midway through his senior year of high school, explaining why he was never eligible for the draft out of high school.
After one semester of junior college, he was selected in the 13th round of the 1999 draft by the Cardinals. The Cardinals offered him just $10,000 to sign, so he went to the summer amateur Jayhawk League and hit .343-5-17. He then signed for close to $60,000, though too late to play in 1999.
He was promoted from Peoria to Potomac (Carolina) with a month to play in the 2000 season, but still was named the Midwest League MVP after hitting .324-17-84 in 395 at-bats. He finished the season playing for Triple-A Memphis, earning MVP honors in the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
Having taken the bullet train to the big leagues, Pujols quickly showed he was a one-in-a-million performer. In fact, a strong case could be made that he had the finest offensive season of any rookie in major league history.
Before Pujols, seven rookies reached the plateaus of a .300 average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. The most homers by any member of that group were the 38 Wally Berger hit for the Boston Braves in 1938, and Pujols finished one shy of that mark.
The highest batting average of the previous seven was .330 by the Indians Hal Trosky in 1934. Pujols missed that record by a single point. The Red Sox Ted Williams still holds the rookie record of 145 RBIs in 1939the only mark that was out of Pujols reach. In another example of how dominating Pujols was at the plate, he surpassed Dick Allens NL rookie record of 352 total bases set in 1964 with Philadelphia. And he was selected to the NL all-star team, becoming the first St. Louis rookie so honored since lefthander Luis Arroyo in 1955.
"Everybody is amazed at what he has done," says Cardinals first-base coach Jose Oquendo, who took Pujols under his wing in the early days of spring training. "The accomplishments he has made this year, you dont see a rookie doing. We all knew he was a good hitter and has a lot of ability, but you dont expect this.
"Hes a rare guy. When those guys come along, they surprise you. He has grown up a lot, but hes still learning the game. He gets advice from a lot of guys; hes always listening to them. And he puts it into practice. He makes the pitcher throw strikes. He doesnt give away at-bats. Hes a good two-strike hitter. When guys make mistakes, he takes advantage of it."
The true test of any rookie is how he performs the second and third time around the league. Many rookies get off to a flashy start, only to fade when opponents made adjustments.
Pujols barely missed a beat all season. He had a bit of a power drought near midseason, but quickly picked up the pace after the break to dispel any notions that he would run out of gas while playing the most games of his young career.
With McGwire unable to find a consistent power stroke after missing so much time, it was Pujols who led the Cardinals charge toward the playoffs. At one point, St. Louis appeared to have no chance, but Pujols put the team on his broad shoulders and the joy ride began.
What is it about Pujols that seemingly made him impervious to pressure? "I think a lot of it is strength of mind and character," La Russa says. "Still, you may be strong enough mentally, but your game is lacking. You may go out there and have ice water in your veins, but if youve got big holes in your swing, its not going to help. Theres no one way to pitch him. You pitch him away, and he hits it out to right field. If they pitch him in, he pulls the ball with power. Hes a good hitter. You cant get him out the same way twice."
St. Louis teammate Fernando Vina calls Pujols "a freak" because he cant remember another young player like him. McGwire compares him to Fred Lynn, the star of the 1975 Red Sox who was the last player to win both the MVP and rookie of the year awards. "We may never see anything like this again," Vina says. "Its unbelievable what he has done. You never expect that from a rookie."
Or a 15-year veteran, for that matter.
Born: Santo Domingo, D.R., Jan. 16, 1980. Home: Roeland Park, Kan. Height: 6-3. Weight: 210. Bats-Throws: B-R.
Career Highlights: Cardinalsą No. 2 prospect before the season after an outstanding first season as a professional . . . Named the Midwest League MVP despite an August promotion to high Class A Potomac . . . Promoted again to Triple-A Memphis to help in the Redbirdsą quest for a Pacific Coast League title, he did just that, leading Memphis to the PCL title and a berth in the Triple-A World Series while garnering playoff MVP award in PCL . . . Set NL rookie records for total bases (360), RBIs . . . Became first St. Louis player to lead team in average, homers and RBIs since Ted Simmons in 1973.
Year Team (League) AVG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB 2000 Peoria (Midwest) .324 395 62 128 32 6 17 84 38 37 2 Potomac (Carolina) .284 81 11 23 8 1 2 10 7 8 1 Memphis (Pacific Coast) .214 14 1 3 1 0 0 2 1 2 1 2001 St. Louis .329 590 112 194 47 4 37 130 69 93 1 MINOR LEAGUE TOTALS .314 490 74 154 41 7 19 96 46 47 4 MAJOR LEAGUE TOTALS .329 590 112 194 47 4 37 130 69 93 1