Celebrating Albert Pujols and a Poet from St. Louis
By Stuart Mitchner
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
—T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
….perhaps the most amazing thing about Albert Pujols is that less than two years before he began one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, he was a non-prospect.
—Joe Posnanski, in Sports Illustrated
How the miracle of Albert Pujols came to St. Louis, the city where T.S. Eliot was born 134 years ago Monday, is the stuff of dreams, especially if you’ve followed the St. Louis Cardinals for most of your life, longing for that October moment when, in the poet’s words, “all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well.”
A “Grown Man” at 18
Born January 16, 1980, in the Dominican Republic, Pujols was raised in Santo Domingo by his father Bienvenido, his grandmother America, and 10 aunts and uncles. At 16, he moved with his father and grandmother to New York City and from there to his paternal grandparents in Independence, Missouri, where he played ball for Fort Osage High. At 18, he looked old for his age, so much so that managers often walked him, not just because he hit eight home runs in the 33 at bats he was given (one traveling some 450 feet), but because they thought their pitchers should not have to throw to “a grown man.” In his first and only season with the Maple Woods Community College Wolves, Pujols hit .461 with 22 homers. Despite putting up numbers like that in Kansas City’s backyard, he didn’t interest the Royals or anyone else until the Cardinals claimed him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. He was the 402nd player taken overall. After a year in the minors, the “non-prospect” was the 2001 National League Rookie of the Year, hitting .329 with 37 homers and 130 RBIs.
A “Baseball Body”
“We weren’t sure he had a position,” said the Royals General Manager Allard Baird. “He didn’t have a great baseball body. We all saw him the same way, and we were all wrong.”
The reference to “a great baseball body” suggests that a young man with the build of a superhero at 18 is somehow not to be trusted. What was the problem? Did the Royals suspect that he was a product of Satan’s workshop like Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees? Surely it wasn’t because they thought that he’d already gone the way of players like Mark McGuire and Roger Clemens, who had “sold their souls” — as in Hall of Fame “immortality” — by using “performance enhancing drugs.”
In his Sports Illustrated article, “The Power to Believe,” Joe Posnanski quotes Pujols: “We’re in this era where people want to judge other people…. But it’s like I always say, ‘Come and test me. Come and do whatever you want.’” As the article’s title suggests, Pujols is a true believer who gestures toward the heavens every time he hits a home run.
Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina recently made their 325th career start together, setting a new major league record. The previous high had been set between 1963 and 1975 by Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers. As a fan from the days before free agency and big business, trade-crazy baseball, the most remarkable aspect of the record is that two players remained with the same team long enough to achieve it.
When Albert Pujols signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels after the 2011 championship season, the timing made sense in the wake of manager Tony LaRussa’s retirement. But having grown up in an era when the Cardinals were struggling, I’d have felt betrayed had the owners dared to trade Stan Musial or, even more unthinkable, if Musial had left the team for a more lucrative contract. There was an all’s-right-with-the-world security in knowing that Musial would remain a Cardinal for life, like his peers Ted Williams with the Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio with the Yankees.
The wonder of the 2022 season is that Pujols came home to write a final chapter, and there he is on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times after hitting his 700th home run, a big smile on his face, arms outspread on either side of the familiar uniform, two redbirds on the slanted branch of a bat, one of the most poetic team emblems in sports. And here on my desk, looking somewhat the worse for wear, is the lone redbird on a pennant I’ve had since my father took me to see the Cards play the Brooklyn Dodgers at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. To accomplish this feat meant driving 250 miles west and back as well as paying for a night’s stay at a hotel — and my English professor father didn’t know, as he liked to put it, “right base from left base.”
A Key Hit
Last Wednesday night in San Diego, the Cardinals were about to be shut out for the third consecutive game. Worse yet, it was the 7th inning and they didn’t have a hit, when, in true storybook form, Albert Pujols came through with a single. As he arrived at first base he was smiling, aware of the impact that hit would have on the team’s morale. The break-up of the no-hitter gave St. Louis the boost it needed to win the next game, and the game after that was Friday’s Pujols spectacular, his two historic blasts among five Cardinal home runs in an 11-0 win, and this time the smile he was smiling as he rounded the bases was bigger, happier, younger, almost boyish, although he seemed to know that this moment in his personal history was only part of a larger narrative carrying his team to the playoffs and beyond.
“Let Us Go Then”
Although my father had no interest in baseball or any other sport, he had a cozy book-lined study where I liked to settle down and read things they didn’t teach in high school, one of which was T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems. Ten years ago, on Eliot’s birthday, I recalled the moment I opened the book to the first line of the first poem: “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky.” If you think of the poet as the pitcher, and the reader as the hitter, the next pitch, where the evening is compared to “a patient etherised upon a table,” is unhittable. What was that? Where did he get it? Is it even legal? A literary spitball? You just watch it go by with your mouth hanging open. You’re already in the poem. No questions asked. This isn’t a visit, it’s a visitation, as “the yellow smoke” becomes a cat rubbing its back against the window-panes and licking its tongue “into the corners of the evening.”
Unlike my father, Eliot was a fan, at least before he moved to England, but he preferred the Boston Red Sox to his hometown team the Cardinals. According to a spirited piece by Louis Phillips in Elysian Fields Quarterly, he never forgave the Red Sox for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
Speaking of the Yankees, look what’s going on in the American League. The same week Pujols nails number 700 — and joins Bonds, Aaron, and Ruth — Aaron Judge equals Ruth’s magic number 60.
Joe Posnanski’s piece appeared in Sports Illustrated, March 16, 2009. He also wrote the introduction to Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth’s Pujols: More Than the Game.