ALBERT PUJOLS’ THREE MVP awards, 10 All-Star Games and abundance of Baseball-Reference black ink ensure him a place in Cooperstown and the right to take an occasional breather from the concept of every pitcher-batter confrontation as a life-or-death experience. But he still arrived in spring training with a competitive chip and a trace of defiance in his voice — and who could blame him?
Pujols has spent several seasons playing on achy feet, he has undergone two surgeries to ease a persistent case of plantar fasciitis, and he has had little opportunity to immerse himself in the grueling winter workouts so vital to his long-term success. The new metrics paint an unfavorable picture, and he has seen the stories of his decline and the suggestion that the four years and $ 114 million left on his contract are a financial albatross for the Los Angeles Angels.
Amid the doubts, Pujols’ high standards and professional pride continue to fuel him. He clings to the traditional numbers that give him comfort because it’s a little late in the game for him to embrace the tenets of weighted runs created plus.
So far, the two-way sensation is living up to Ruthian expectations. But how will he possibly keep this up? We trace his journey back to Japan in search of the surprising answer.
The Sandy Koufax of our time just turned the big 3-0 and has stayed a step ahead of major league hitters for 10 years. How has the ace of a generation reached this level, and where will his Cooperstown-worthy career go next?
“I’ve still driven in  or 100 runs five out of the six years that I’ve been here,” Pujols said. “Yes, my average, on-base and slugging haven’t been the same. But you know what? If I hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs in the four years I have left, I think I’m going to be in pretty good company.”
He’s already in good company — and it’s about to get better.
Pujols hit the ground running this spring — not an easy feat for a guy with two career bunt singles. He’s tied for 11th in the majors with 22 hits so far this season and is only 10 shy of becoming the 32nd player in MLB history with 3,000 career hits. He will join Adrian Beltre as the second Dominican Republic native in the club, and he will enter a group of players with 3,000 hits, 450 homers and 600 doubles that includes Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Beltre and Pujols’ baseball icon, Stan Musial.
For want of a better word, he’s looking downright spry at age 38.
“I want to do it first, and then we can talk about it as much as you can,” Pujols said. “To get to that number is going to be really special. It’s something you don’t aim for or focus on, but when you’re this close, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of hits.”’
As the big day looms, Pujols sat down with ESPN.com and reflected on some of the moments, mantras and personal milestones that have brought him to such a revered place.
He’ll always remember the first
When Pujols tore up spring training in 2001, the rumblings began that the Cardinals might consider breaking camp with a 21-year-old third baseman/outfielder with 127 minor league games on his résumé. Pujols started in left field on Opening Day and got on the board with a single to left field against Colorado’s Mike Hampton on April 2, 2001.
Pujols went 1-for-9 in that opening series at Coors Field before collecting seven hits in 14 at-bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was on his way.
“I remember my [second] at-bat. I almost took him deep,” Pujols said of the encounter with Hampton. “I almost hit a home run. I hit a long fly ball, and they caught it right at the wall. Then I hit a pitch middle-away, and I hit a ground ball, and Neifi Perez almost caught it, but it went through.
“Obviously, it’s fun, but I was more worried about trying to stay up in the big leagues. Three days before, they told me I was going to make the ballclub. Then three days later, on Opening Day, I got my first base hit.
“I didn’t think much about it, but that’s how it’s been for me. Everything I’ve accomplished is great, but it’s hard for me to soak everything in when I’m still playing the game. Sometimes people can take that wrong. It’s not that I don’t care. I do care. But it’s hard for me when I’m still active and playing the game to sit down and think about what I’ve accomplished. I’m still probably going to get a lot of other things. That’s pretty much how I’ve been since day one.”
The stance laid the foundation
Many of Pujols’ peers marvel at his ability to last so long while using such a physically demanding batting stance. He settled into the box in a pronounced crouch, with his legs spread in a kind of wishbone, and it was a natural antidote to over-striding. The approach put a strain on his legs and back, but it didn’t prevent Pujols from playing the ironman role. During a 12-year span from 2001 through 2012, he averaged 675 plate appearances and 155 games per season.
“I can’t imagine being in that stance for 20 years,” Pujols’ former Cardinals teammate David Freese said. “That’s insane. He gets so far down there. It’s got to wear on him. In the clubhouse, you see how guys are hurt and have nagging injuries, and he’s dealt with that most of his career. But 160 games later, he’s still in there unless he has surgery. It’s all about having the desire and the focus and the need and the want to be out there.”
Pujols has a simple explanation for his commitment to the stance. He used it early, it worked, and there was no reason to change.
“I was always down on my legs until my injuries,” he said. “Now I’m standing a little bit more tall. Whenever I feel good on my legs, I still kind of get down in that position. But obviously because of my knee surgery on my back side, I can’t do as much because it flares up a little bit.
“I haven’t changed it much. A little bit. I’m pretty sure if I tried to hit like other people, I would feel uncomfortable. This is something I’ve done for almost 19 years now.”
Stan the Man set the standard
When Pujols was with the Cardinals, spring training was like touring a baseball museum. A stroll through the clubhouse could easily yield an encounter with Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter or Red Schoendienst, the patron saint of every value Cardinals fans hold dear.
Pujols and Musial were separated by 60 years, but they developed an intergenerational bond as superstars responsible for fulfilling the dreams of a baseball-obsessed city. Pujols’ respect for Musial was so profound that he chafed over the nickname “El Hombre” because he thought it intruded upon the hallowed ground that “Stan the Man” had staked out in St. Louis.
“Stan did a lot of stuff for our foundation, and I did a lot of stuff for his foundation. We just became real close,” Pujols said. “I knew about him, but not much until I got to St. Louis and I started reading about him and they started making the comparison between me and him. He was just a great human being. Forget about what he did in baseball. Look at what he did to serve this country. To me, that’s more important than what he did in the game and showed the kind of person he was.”
Pujols and Musial rarely talked hitting in-depth, but one ritual endured throughout Pujols’ 11 seasons in St. Louis.
“When Stan played, I’m pretty sure they used to make their own bats,” Pujols said. “The wood is so much better now than it was back then. So every time I came around, he always touched my bat. He would pick it up and say, ‘Man.’ I remember one time he told me, ‘That’s why you don’t miss any pitches. This feels good.’
“It was just fun. Great times, great memories. It’s always going to live with me, and nobody can take that away from me.”
From his first at-bat, he loathed striking out
Of the 31 players with 3,000 hits, 20 never struck out 100 times in a season. But the majority of those hitters were either contact types (Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Rod Carew) or players from a bygone era (Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Paul Waner and Napoleon Lajoie, to name a few).
“It’s something in this game I really, really don’t like. If you put the ball in play, you give yourself a chance to put some pressure on the defense, and maybe they can make mistakes and make an error. If it’s two outs, you can start a rally. If you strike out, you don’t have any chance.”
Albert Pujols on strikeouts
Pujols’ .560 slugging percentage will be the best of any 3,000-hit club member, yet he has never whiffed 100 times. His single-season highs of 93 came in his rookie season of 2001 and last season at age 37.
“Some guys in this era think the strikeout is a little overrated,” Pujols said. “They’re like, ‘I don’t care about it.’ I do. It’s something in this game I really, really don’t like. If you put the ball in play, you give yourself a chance to put some pressure on the defense, and maybe they can make mistakes and make an error. If it’s two outs, you can start a rally. If you strike out, you don’t have any chance.
“I can’t really describe what it is with two strikes. I don’t feel any pressure. I still feel like I can put my best swing on it and not have to worry about it. Part of that is having the success. You have to have success with two strikes and know that you can trust yourself.”
Consistency has been his trademark
Pujols has a .972 career OPS against lefties compared to a .938 mark vs. righties, and he has logged a .954 home OPS in St. Louis and Anaheim compared to .938 on the road. If there’s a pattern to his monthly progression each season, it’s his penchant for doing his best work during the dog days.
Career OPS by month
“August and September are my best months because that’s what I train for in the offseason,” he said. “I train for the late months when your body is tired and you’re draining out. My trainer and coaches used to tell me those are the toughest months. It seems like I always hit better in the second half than the first half. I don’t know why because I never did anything different. It was just my preparation in the offseason.”
He wore out the best of his generation
Pujols is 0-for-16 against Corey Kluber, 2-for-21 against Chris Sale and 13-for-65 against Felix Hernandez, the pitcher he considers his biggest career nemesis. His overall numbers have taken a hit as he has transitioned into his late 30s with the Angels.
But the starting pitchers who dominated Cy Young voting and All-Star rosters during Pujols’ peak seasons in St. Louis always prompted him to raise his game.
Pujols vs. elite pitchers
That 1.194 career slugging percentage against Randy Johnson is not a misprint. Pujols hit six homers and drove in 15 runs in 33 at-bats against the Big Unit.
“Randy was still in his prime when I came up,” Pujols said. “Even though I had the success, he was one guy you really, really didn’t want to face. He was a gamer, man. I remember you couldn’t even say hi to him before he pitched. I actually tipped my cap the first at-bat against him. He had his game face on all the time.
“These guys were all so good, it takes you to another level where you have to zoom in and really focus because they might give you one pitch to hit. One pitch to hit, and if you miss it, you’re done. If they made that mistake, you needed to take advantage.
“With the guys who were extra special, they already knew if you were ready to hit before you even stepped in the batter’s box. They’d track you all the way down from the dugout and see your body language, and they knew if you were ready to hit or not. Those guys would take you to the next level physically and mentally.”
And Odalis Perez, in particular
When Pujols makes his Hall of Fame speech five years after his retirement, he should save a mention for Odalis Perez, a fellow Dominican who pitched for 10 seasons with the Braves, Dodgers, Royals and Nationals.
Pujols went 16-for-26 against Perez, with six homers, 10 walks and a 2.145 OPS. The beatings eventually became too demoralizing for his countryman to bear.
“One time I hit a ball off the end of the bat and got an infield hit, and he put his hands up, and he was like, ‘Really? You even got a base hit on that?”’ Pujols said. “It was so funny. He was like, ‘Man, can I ever get you out?”’
He has machine-like tendencies
What makes great hitters special? Hand-eye coordination, bat speed, anticipation and pitch recognition invariably factor into the equation. But the best hitters have a certain something extra that sets them above the crowd.
Angels second baseman Ian Kinsler has played with enough elite players to qualify as an authority on the topic. His list of teammates includes Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Sammy Sosa, Victor Martinez, Michael Young and Josh Hamilton, who was about as good as it gets during a brief peak in Texas.
“In my opinion, good hitters make adjustments game to game or at-bat to at-bat,” Kinsler said. “Great hitters make adjustments pitch-to-pitch, and Hall of Famers can make adjustments as the pitch is coming. They might be expecting one thing and see another and make an adjustment and put a really good swing on it.”
A 2009 ESPN commercial that depicted Pujols as a ruthless cyborg — aka “The Machine” — played out each night at the plate.
Albert Pujols doesn’t like his nickname.
After fouling off a pitch, Pujols would step out of the box, take a breath to collect himself and stare intently at his bat while a swirl of split-second calculations whizzed through his head. If he was a hair too fast or too slow or too quick firing his hips, he would recalibrate and makes the necessary adjustment to do damage.
“I have a game plan every day,” Pujols said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stick with it the whole game. Maybe the pitcher has pitched me a little different than the game plan I was taking. You can’t just wait until you’re 0-for-4 or 0-for-5. You have to make that adjustment right away.
“Batting practice is a little bit different because we’re under time, but even in the cage, I’ll take a couple of swings, step back and close my eyes. I’ll walk around — and boom, boom, boom — three more. What I’m doing is visualizing what I’m going to do in the game. Mark McGwire was really good at that. He was really focused and visualizing, ‘That pitch is going to be right here, and this is what I want to do.’ It’s the same thing for me. I’m thinking. I’m processing. It happens in less than 10 seconds. Everything.
“When I get back in the batter’s box, I’ve already processed all the things I want to do. If that pitch was there and I missed it, I’m like, ‘Why did I miss that pitch?’ And now I know. So if they throw it again, that’s when I make the adjustment and do my best to try and put my best swing on it.”
He’s a Joey Votto fan
Pujols and Votto have the same agent, Dan Lozano of the MVP Sports Group, and they’re two of only 11 players in MLB history who have signed contracts in excess of $ 200 million. They also dot the leaderboard in a slew of career categories. Votto ranks 16th in history with a .964 OPS, while Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are tied for 22nd at .9461 — right down to the ten-thousandths.
“Albert was never going to be out-prepared. He was really comfortable taking that first pitch all the time because he always knew what the second pitch was going to be. And you never saw that ugly swing where he was completely fooled and out on his front foot and looked terrible. For Albert, looking terrible was a lineout to right.”
Former Cardinals teammate Skip Schumaker
Skip Schumaker, now a coach with the San Diego Padres, played with Pujols in St. Louis for seven seasons and in Cincinnati with Votto for two seasons. He found that their attention to detail is remarkably similar.
“Their video work and preparation were relentless,” Schumaker said. “Joey would be on the plane flight watching video. It didn’t matter what video work the pitcher did on him because he had already done more than the pitcher could ever do.
“Albert was never going to be out-prepared. He was really comfortable taking that first pitch all the time because he always knew what the second pitch was going to be. And you never saw that ugly swing where he was completely fooled and out on his front foot and looked terrible. For Albert, looking terrible was a lineout to right. He even knew the umpires’ strengths in the strike zone. For instance, if Rob Drake gave more on the outside corner than normal, Albert knew that.”
Ask Pujols which active hitters he admires most, and he mentions Cabrera from the right side of the plate and Votto from the left. He swears by Cabrera as baseball’s best hitter, even though Miggy’s numbers declined precipitously last season, when he played with two herniated discs in his back, and he is off to a slow start again this season.
“Miggy is awesome,” Pujols said. “He’s the best hitter in the game right now. It’s Miggy from the right side, and Joey Votto is pretty special. His hand-eye coordination is great, and I enjoy his swing and his work ethic. I wouldn’t mind having either one of those guys up with the game on the line. You can’t go wrong with either of them.”
He once inspired a future MVP in Houston
Pujols is a fan of Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who was just a pint-sized overachiever striving to stick in the big leagues when they first crossed paths at second base during Altuve’s rookie year in 2011.
“I just hit a double, and I was at second base, and he asked me, ‘Albert, I just want to stay here. Do you think I have a chance?’ I was like, ‘If you keep doing what you’re doing, buddy, you’re going to be here for a long time.’ I always make a joke about it when I see him now.
“It’s great. I’m excited because I saw him from day one in Houston coming up and how hard he’s worked. I’m just real excited to see him accomplish what he has in the game.”
Not to mention countless other young players
Zack Cozart, who signed a three-year deal with the Angels in December, broke into the majors with Cincinnati in 2011 and was rendered mute in his initial encounters with Pujols.
“I was a rookie, and I was in awe of him,” Cozart said. “I got on first, and I couldn’t even say anything to him because it’s Albert Pujols. And now I’m teammates with him. It’s crazy, and it’s really cool to say I played with Joey [Votto] and now I’m in Albert’s group every day. We don’t necessarily talk a ton about hitting, but I watch him and how he goes about things, and you can’t help but want to mimic that because the guy is one of the best of all time. You just can’t do everything they do because they’re among the best players ever.”
“I was a rookie, and I was in awe of him. I got on first, and I couldn’t even say anything to him because it’s Albert Pujols.”
Angels infielder Zack Cozart on his first encounter with Albert Pujols
Opposing pitchers, similarly, file away their matchups with Pujols for posterity. Detroit starter Michael Fulmer will never forget striking out Pujols in their first meeting in 2016.
“I made the three best pitches of my whole career,” Fulmer said. “I threw him two four-seam fastballs down and away. He took the first one, swung through the second one, and then I threw him one of the best sliders I’ve ever thrown. I don’t know how — I can’t replicate it. He swung through that one too, but just kind of seeing him in the box, and obviously I watched him growing up, I was a huge fan of his. Just to be able to pitch to him, it was something I’d never thought I’d dream of.
“I exhaled for sure when I struck him out. I kind of turned around and to myself said, ‘How did I just do that? I can’t believe I just did that.’ It was a surreal moment.”
He’s a fan of old-school stats, and he’s unabashedly old-school
“There’s so much stuff going on with punching numbers and computers,” Pujols said. “I always tell those genius people that think they know everything, ‘Put that computer on the plate, and see if it’s going to hit.’ I believe in the wisdom the coaches have. You play for 20 years, and you know what you do because you play it — not because you punch a number in a computer.
“I think it was last year or two years ago, somebody said something about how the RBI doesn’t matter anymore. Are you fricking kidding me? How do we win games? You’re going to tell me the RBI doesn’t matter. How are you going to win games if somebody doesn’t drive somebody in? Nobody can score. So let’s just wipe it away then?”
And he believes a lot of success is about showing up
Pujols consistently preaches that his early work in the cage, video study and time in the weight room lie at the heart of his success. He developed the proper work habits from his veteran teammates in St. Louis and recoils at the idea of taking shortcuts.
“If I want young guys to follow and respect the rules of this clubhouse, I have to be here early myself,” Pujols said. “If I’m the CEO of a big company, and I’m in charge of 400-500 employees, and your job is to show up at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I’m the CEO and I show up at 9 o’clock, what kind of example does that set? If you show up tomorrow at 9 o’clock, I can’t say anything to you. But if I show up at 6:30, before I open up those doors, you can’t have any excuse to show up late unless there’s an emergency. You can’t show up at 7:15 or 7:30 because the boss is there at 6:30. All the successful companies you look at, I bet that’s why they’re a success.
“When I was in St. Louis, I learned from Placido Polanco, who was my compadre. Fernando Vina. Edgar Renteria. Mike Matheny. J.D. Drew. Mark McGwire. Larry Walker. Reggie Sanders. Tony Womack. Jim Edmonds. I was so blessed being around all those guys because they taught me the game the right way. I was like a sponge. When you drop the water, and the sponge sucks everything up, that’s how I was. It stuck with me and helped me out up to right now. And that’s what I encourage these young kids to do.”
His influence will transcend 600 homers and 3,000 hits
Schumaker can recount in vivid detail how Pujols took Brad Lidge deep in Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series and brought a hush to the crowd at Minute Maid Park. “For me, that’s a top-five moment in my career,” Schumaker said. But two private clubhouse encounters better illustrate Pujols’ impact on Schumaker as a teammate and person.
“I was a fifth outfielder at the beginning of my career,” Schumaker said, “and Albert treated me like I was a starter. He was fantastic to me. One year, they had a tailor in the clubhouse, and he bought me a suit. Another time, I was looking for watches. I thought I needed a dress-up watch, and all of a sudden in spring training, he threw me this beautiful Breitling watch out of nowhere. It had to be a $ 5,000 watch, and he was like, ‘Here you go, kid.’ It was incredible. I still have the watch.
“He was excellent to all the young guys. He did it for a guy named John Rodriguez, too. And his wife was excellent to the wives when they could have been the ultimate big leaguers. You’re talking about maybe one of the top five players ever. For him to go above and beyond the way he did for me and so many other guys, that says a lot about who he is. It really stuck with me in my career — how cool that was.”
As Schumaker watches Pujols pick off milestones, he recalls another encounter during spring training in Florida, when he gained a greater insight into Pujols’ charity work in the Dominican Republic.
“Albert asked me how my offseason was, and I told him I went to Hawaii,” Schumaker said. “I asked him what he did, and he told me how we went to the Dominican with mattresses and doctors and all this stuff. I’m thinking, ‘Well, my offseason was worthless.’ He used the platform he had been given on and off the field, and that really resonated with me. He did it right.”
There’s more work to be done
As time moves on and the next milestone looms, Pujols collects memories along with hits. No. 3,000 will provide an opportunity to reflect and thank all the people who’ve accompanied him on this road. Even the most ruthless of hitting machines gets sentimental now and then.
“I’ve had great people around me,” Pujols said. “After God and my family, I can name you names and be here for weeks. People who helped me out on and off the field. Teammates. Ex-teammates. Guys I can pick up the phone anytime and call, and they’ll encourage me not just in baseball but in life. Those memories stay with you forever.
“I’ve got three more years left after this. That’s the mark I want to leave behind — that path. Trust me, the 600 homers are great, and 3,000 hits is awesome. But the memories and friendships you build here are untouchable. Nobody can take that away from me.”