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Albert Pujols leaves no doubt

The Cardinals slugger leads the league in home runs and runs batted in but can't escape suspicion. 'I'm the one guy that everyone can't wait until I fail,' he says. 'What can you do?'

August 19, 2009|Kevin Baxter

The doubters are everywhere.

Never mind that Albert Pujols has never been publicly linked to anything stronger than cough syrup. You just don't do what he has done and escape suspicion.

Not now. Not after Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Roger Clemens and a finger-wagging Rafael Palmeiro

"He hits the ball a long way and they're going to say, 'Ah-ha, I wonder.' And it is unfair," Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said. "There's no question it's unfair."

Never mind that the St. Louis Cardinals slugger has never failed a drug test since mandatory testing went into effect. In fact, he has challenged his critics to come test him whenever and wherever they want.

Yet, Google "Pujols" and "steroids" and you'll get more than half a million results.

"It's unfair to characterize Albert, to be worried about him, because of others," said his manager, Tony La Russa. "He has said he'd give back every penny he ever made if he tested positive. And so it's unfair."

Unfair but understandable. In an era when just about every remarkable performance seems to have been followed by a grim revelation, Pujols' numbers echo a familiar pattern.

He has 105 runs batted in and a baseball-best 39 home runs this season, leaving him on pace for career highs in both categories. A .321 batting average, fourth best in the National League, putting him in the running to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1967. He has scored 94 runs, tying for the major league lead with the Angels' Chone Figgins.

And this from a guy who, at 29, has already won a batting title and two most-valuable-player awards. Haven't we seen this before?

"People became jaded when they saw people that were so much better than everybody else," Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf said. "And obviously, he is better than everybody else. I think a fan has every right to be skeptical.

"Fans have definitely been disappointed by some very good hitters. But I think until some guy is caught or whatever the circumstance is, you've got to give the guy benefit of the doubt and be in awe of what he does on the field."

If the doubts, the cynicism and the innuendo are weighing on Pujols, it doesn't show. He answers to a higher authority, he says, than his critics.

"People like to judge other people," he said. "And the only one that was perfect was Jesus Christ."

So three hours before the nationally televised opener of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, a series with playoff implications for both teams, Pujols sat at a small table in the Cardinals clubhouse playing cards with new teammate Julio Lugo, squealing every time he drew a winning hand.

"I'm the one guy that everyone can't wait until I fail. It seems like everybody just wishes me the worst," he said with a shrug. "That's the way it is. What can you do?"

Pujols' story should be the stuff of legend, not scorn. Born into poverty uncommon even for the Dominican Republic, he learned his trade from his father, Bienvenido, a local softball legend who moved the family to New York when Albert was 16. They didn't stay long, though. After Pujols watched a man get shot to death on the streets of Manhattan, his grandmother insisted the family move again, this time to the heartland, Independence, Mo.

There Pujols, held back a year in school because he didn't speak English, quickly proved to be a man among boys, hitting a 450-foot home run as a 17-year-old junior.

A year later, opposing coaches walked him 55 times in 88 plate appearances -- though he still managed to hit eight home runs in the 33 times they pitched to him.

A 13th-round selection in the 1999 draft, Pujols rocketed through the Cardinals' minor league system, going from Class-A Peoria to triple-A Memphis in less than a season. A year later, he made his major league debut, hitting .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs in what is arguably the best rookie season in National League history.

And he has hardly slowed since. With his 105 RBIs this season, Pujols has driven in at least 103 runs in each of his nine big league seasons. Only Hall of Fame member Al Simmons, with 11, had more 100-RBI seasons to start a career.

Pujols has hit at least 32 home runs each year, making him the first player to start a career with more than four 30-home run seasons.

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.

"He's having one of the great careers in the history of the game," La Russa said. "You never take it for granted and we're always amazed. But we're never surprised."

Yet, the doubters refuse to take any of it on faith, leaving Pujols to seek refuge in his faith in God.

"My faith is everything," he said. "That's who I play for. And obviously he has given me the ability and the talent to play this game. As a player, I try to give to him."

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