Mention the name Albert Pujols, and the list of adjectives to describe the Cardinals slugger-- the Machine, King Albert, El Hombre -- evokes a super-human quality that the two-time MVP has undoubtedly earned.
When he broke into the Majors in 2001, Pujols was named the National League's Rookie of the Year and has gone on to become an eight-time All-Star and World Series champion in 2006.
But in the summer of 2000, Pujols was just a 20-year-old player in Class A with big league dreams and a dwindling bank account, the latter of which he was not happy about.
Former Peoria manager Tom Lawless still laughs at the memory of an outraged young Pujols, who was fined $50 for not hustling down the first base line. It was a policy Lawless had explained to the Chiefs in a pregame meeting that night, and one that was strictly enforced after Pujols hit a one-hopper back to the pitcher in his first at-bat.
"He wasn't happy," Lawless recalled. "He said 'What do you mean?, I said, 'We play the game hard. I expect you to run down the line."
Lawless never had to discipline the budding superstar again. During his three month-stint with Peoria, Pujols was always the first one on the field to hit. A 13th-round draft pick despite putting up monster numbers at Maple Woods Community College, Pujols never missed an opportunity to learn about the intricacies of baseball. Whether he was taking infield grounders or working on secondary leads, Pujols used the same tenacity he took to the plate to improve all facets of his game.
"From Day 1, he just had the will to survive and be as good as he can be," said Lawless, who is a St. Louis resident and golfs with Pujols in the offseason. "That [work ethic] is what makes him a special player. You just knew he was one of those kids who only came along every so many years."
Before his promotion Pujols was crowned the Midwest League MVP, and after impressing the Cardinals in Class A Advanced Potomac, he joined the team's Triple A affiliate in Memphis, where he was named the Pacific Coast League's postseason MVP.
In his only season in the Minors, Pujols hit a combined .314 with 19 homers and 96 RBIs across three levels. By the time he broke camp with the Cardinals in 2001, the combination of talent and drive turned the rookie into a utility weapon at first base, third base and the outfield. Manager Tony LaRussa said Pujols made things look easy, a compliment that still rings true.
As a veteran, Pujols is equal parts humbled and driven by his success. Considered a defensive liability as a prospect, Pujols persevered and won a Gold Glove at first base in 2006. But he deflects any individual praise, choosing instead to focus on the Cardinals, who are closing in on clinching a postseason berth.
"I think when it comes to preparation, we are prepared," he said. " We all know what we need to do to keep going and to be successful."
"Getting to the playoffs is like a baby step. It's like crawling and the first step is to win the Division and then be League champion and move on to the World Series and still win it."
As a player once fined for his hustle, Pujols is now defined by it. Just don't expect him to slow down.
2000: Pujols' year in the Minors
|Class A: Pujols played 100 games with the Peoria Chiefs, batting .324 and leading the team in homers (17) and RBIs (84).
|Class A Advanced: Pujols was promoted to the Potomac Cannons in August of 2000, and hit .284 with a .481 slugging percentage in 21 games.
|Triple-A: Despite a brief stint in Memphis, Pujols made his presence felt. He collected three hits, including a double and a walk, with two RBIs in three games. A member of the Redbirds' playoff team, Pujols was named the Pacific Coast League's postseason MVP.