Among active ballplayers, Albert Pujols is my favorite. A big part of it is he means so much to my mother-in-law. She's a decadeslong Cardinals fan. Lives in St. Louis. Her health isn't good. No need for details, but one day in her life, I am certain, would have me begging for relief.
She's wild about Pujols, calls him "Poojie." She'll be wiped out, in bed, exhausted to the bone, yet if Pujols is due to bat, she'll have someone turn up the volume on the Cardinals game. Not to get sappy here, but I've no doubt that Pujols helps her get through some rugged times.
We've watched some Cardinals games together, and it's something else. She's a woman of uncommon goodness, a beloved grandmother and mother, yet when I asked if she ever feels sorry for the poor pitchers who have to face Pujols, she raised an eyebrow and gave me a scary look. Kind of how Pujols looks. At least when he's playing baseball. Before today's game, he was smiling and giving spiritual encouragement to a teammate.
Editor's note. I just looked up Pujols' age. He's 29. The home run he hit here at Petco Park today was his 359th. Ridiculous!
As a baseball beat reporter, you watch about 200 ballgames a year, counting spring training and the postseason. Pujols almost always did something special in the six or seven games I saw him each year.
It goes beyond his hitting and fielding.
A quick example. May 2008. Petco Park. Pujols is leading off second base with two outs. Troy Glaus is batting. Poor Josh Bard is catching. In right field is Brian Giles.
Glaus hits a laser, the ball reaching Giles on one hop. Giles doesn't have a good arm, but the ball's on him fast and he gets rid of it fast. Pujols really isn't fast, but because he anticipated so well, he arrives at home plate simultaneous with the ball. Leg extended, his firm slide beats the tag and takes out Bard.
Bard never complained, even after the ankle injury that Pujols dealt him put him in a walking boot. Nor did Giles or Padres manager Bud Black -- because Pujols was, and I apologize for the cliche, playing the game exactly how they believe it should be played.
The funny thing is, I watched a lot of baseball in 2008, and saw no one else get a better jump, or corner third base better, or more forcefully slide into a guarded home plate than Pujols did on that one play on a May evening in San Diego.
As Cardinals teammate Khalil Greene put it before today's game, Pujols "is pretty acutely aware of what he does."
Greene, the former Padres shortstop, then talked about what it's been like to watch Pujols hit on a daily basis.
"A thing that's enviable to look at is, is his ability to really not have to work at driving the ball, but still be able to drive the ball. To really let the ball get deep, let it travel, and take a swing that really isn't a home run swing. He really doesn't try to do too much and still hits balls 450 feet."
Two hours later, Pujols rocketed a home run to the opposite field, his 40th of the season.