Pujols at center of All-Star festivities
Cardinals' special slugger has made St. Louis his city
ST. LOUIS -- This has been Albert Pujols' town since about 2002, when he was the best player and MVP runner-up on a team that made an inspiring and engrossing run to the National League Central championship.
The Cardinals have been Pujols' team for at least the past couple of seasons, since Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds were traded.
But now is unquestionably Pujols' moment, in a way it has never been before. This week's All-Star festivities belong to the two-time MVP, and Major League Baseball has made very little secret about it.
Pujols has been the centerpiece of advertising for not only Tuesday night's 80th Major League Baseball All-Star Game at 8 p.m. ET on FOX, but the State Farm Home Run Derby as well. He participated -- unsuccessfully, unfortunately -- in the "Call Your Shot" promotion before the Derby, trying to win a prize package for a fan. He's on the cover of one magazine after another. He's sure to get the biggest ovation before Tuesday night's game, and he drew unquestionably the biggest crowds during Monday's media sessions with the All-Stars.
It's Pujols' world, and everyone else is just living in it -- even 65 of the greatest baseball players on earth, his fellow All-Stars. However great his All-Star teammates and opponents are, this is Pujols' show.
"Yeah," said Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, "and it should be. It's his city. He's done so much for the city. I know what a great person he is. I know what he's done off the field as well. So it should be. It should be a celebration of how great he is as a player and as a person. He's a great ambassador for Major League Baseball. He's the best player we have in our game today, and he deserves all the accolades and all the attention and success he's received."
Yes, Cardinals fans -- that's Ryan Braun, object of so much of your scorn. Braun, the slugging star of the rival Brewers, is hitting cleanup for the National League team on Tuesday night. He's a legitimately great hitter in his own right. But even he marvels at Pujols.
"Playing this game every day, recognizing how difficult it is to have success and be consistent, when you look at the numbers that he's put up, it's incredible," Braun said.
Pujols is even going to receive the ceremonial first pitch that President Barack Obama will throw out before Tuesday night's game. And he's comfortable enough with his place in the whole thing to crack a joke about it.
"I'm just going to tell him, 'Lob it up there. Don't try to be a perfect throw,'" Pujols laughed. "The worst thing, if you throw any first pitch, you don't want to bounce it. That's the advice that I'm going to give. Make sure that you don't bounce it."
Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa has called Pujols the greatest player he's managed in a 30-year career. A recent Sports Illustrated article asked whether he was the most perfect player there has ever been. The questions are no longer whether Pujols is the best player in the game today. Simply, he is. The questions now focus on where he stands in the history of the game.
All before his 30th birthday.
"I don't think I'm a perfect ballplayer," Pujols said. "Because if I would have been perfect, there would be things I wouldn't have in my numbers that I want to change -- a strikeout, an error, that ball that went through my legs [on Sunday]. I don't think a perfect player would make a mistake like that. I don't think there's such a thing as a perfect player. It's great, but you need to be humble. I don't think there's any such thing as a perfect player. If you were perfect, this game wouldn't be fun. I wouldn't have to work hard."
And there's zero doubt about Pujols' work. He's obsessive about hitting, working not only hard, but smart. He attacks every batting practice session with a plan and hones his swing down to the finest details. Then he takes that plan into the game. One thing pitchers have learned over the years is that just because you get Pujols out one time, it doesn't mean the same thing will work next time.
"He takes every at-bat seriously," said Giants pitcher Matt Cain. "He doesn't go up there and give away at-bats. With a guy on second and nobody out, he's looking to help the team. He's going up there to get a guy over. If he gets a hit, it's good, but he's looking to help the team out. That's what makes Pujols an All-Star for so many years and such a great hitter."
Pujols also has shown more willingness this week, and to some extent this season, to be not only the game's best player, but one of the faces of baseball. It's still not a role he eagerly embraces, but he's growing more comfortable with it. He participated in two separate media sessions on Monday morning, and he was charming and engaging both times.
And even as Pujols gets better and more comfortable with such tasks, they remain far from his first priority.
"Represent the organization, represent this uniform that I wear every day and Major League Baseball -- that's something that I try to do every day," he said.
"Every day" is a key phrase in understanding Pujols. He is the same player from day to day, week to week, season to season. His consistency at an elite level is staggering. He hasn't hit below .327 or posted an on-base percentage lower than .415 since 2002. Only twice in his career has he slugged lower than .609.
When it comes to the finer points, he's gotten better every year. But the overall package is the same as it's been since he burst onto the scene in 2001. It's just that this year, for whatever reason, his star has risen. Perhaps it's the simple numbers, his remarkable display of first-half power. Perhaps with the tarnishing of superstars Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, the spotlight has moved on to the next great one.
Maybe it's just his time. But it's certainly, unquestionably, his week. Just ask someone who would know. A year ago, the All-Star Game was at Yankee Stadium, in Derek Jeter's house, just as this year's Midsummer Classic is at Pujols' house.
"I think last year was more a celebration of Yankee Stadium, and rightly so," Jeter said. "And I think this year it seems like it's a celebration for Albert, and rightly so once again. What he's done for this organization, how he's handled himself, it's pretty special."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.