Albert Pujols Fooled the Experts, Even Tony La Russa

Albert Pujols stepped into the batter’s box for the first time in his major league career.

Colorado Rockies’ ace left-hander Mike Hampton (yes, Mike Hampton once was an ace) peered in to get the signal from Brent Mayne, nodded assent, went into the windup and delivered.

Pujols. who was overanxious, swung. The best he could manage was a ground ball to the left side. Third baseman Jeff Cirillo gloved the ball on the second hop, stared at it for a split second and fired to first for the out.

Twenty-one-year old Albert Pujols reacted calmly. His first major league hit came in the seventh inning, when hit singled.

A week later, speaking to the media, Pujols described how he had reacted.

“After grounding out in my first at-bat of the season, against Hampton, I said to myself, ‘O.K., just relax and play the game like you always do.’ That’s what I’m doing.”

He hit a single in the seventh inning for his first major league hit, which was just the beginning.

In the St. Louis Cardinals’ home opener, Pujols hit his first home run. With Mark McGwire and Jim Edmunds hampered by injuries, rookie Pujols became the team’s most consistent hitter.

He set a National League record by driving in 130 runs and fell one home run short of tying Wally Berger’s and Frank Robinson’s rookie record of 38 home runs. Pujols was the Rookie of the Year.

Pujols made the Cardinals after only one full season in the minors.

At Class A Peoria, he hit .324 with 17 home runs and 84 RBIs in 109 games. At Class A+ Potomac, he batted .324 in 21 games and he finished the season at Triple A Memphis, hitting .214 in three games. Overall, hit batted .314/.378/.543.

In 2001, Pujols was a non-roster player at spring training. Manager Tony La Russa thought that Albert needed more time in the minors, but when Bobby Bonilla was injured, the Cardinals kept Pujols to play against lefties.

He did quite well and soon was also in the lineup against right-handers.. Pujols played at either first base, third base, right field or left field.

There are good reasons that Tony La Russa has earned his reputation as a great manager.

“You don’t do what we’ve done with Albert every day,” La Russa said. “You’re mindful of shattering a player’s psyche, concerned about bringing a player up too soon considering the lack of experience. It is very rare that a player so young and lacking in seasoning and experience will survive.

“It has to be a special talent, not just physically but mentally, and Pujols certainly is a special talent.”

General manager Walt Jockettti: “We didn’t expect him to make our team this year,but every week in spring training we’d have our cut-down meetings and we’d all say, ‘Nope, we can’t cut him this week.’ “

When Arizona Diamondbacks Luis Gonzalez saw Pujols play, he didn’t mince words. . “He’s impressive. I told him, ‘You’re my dark-horse candidate for Rookie of the Year.’ “

Cardinals’ second baseman Fernando Vina summed it up best.

“There’s no awe in his eyes.”


Verducci, Tom. “No Sweat As Rookie Albert Pujols Led Reshuffled St. Louis to a Sweep of Arizona. Sports Illustrated. Apr. 16, 2001. p. 48.

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