In the spring of 2001, the St. Louis Cardinals seemed pretty well set. They were coming off their best season in more than a decade, a 95-win season where they reached the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals had one of the most powerful lineups in baseball (featuring Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds), and they had good veteran pitching. They did not expect any surprises at Spring Training.
Only then, a 21-year-old kid named Jose Pujols showed up.
"Impressive," Cards manager Tony La Russa told reporters that February after watching Pujols play a little bit.
It happens every spring. It will happen this spring, too. A young player will show up, catch the eye of the manager and general manager. He might be a pitcher suddenly throwing 100 mph or breaking off savage curveballs. He might be a hitter crushing home runs at an impossible rate. The jolt of watching someone -- especially a young player -- emerge in the spring is one of the things that makes baseball joyous.
But let's be honest, the jolt usually fades. The player usually fades. "Spring Training phenom" is not usually a compliment. In Pujols' case, he had played just one full season of Minor League baseball. It was a fine season -- he'd hit .324 with some power at Class A Peoria. Everyone knows it's a long way from Peoria to the big leagues.
"Pujols shouldn't make the club," La Russa teased on Feb. 15. He paused. "But," La Russa added, "I didn't think McGwire was going to make the club in 1987."
Well, that got everybody's attention. Of course, Pujols in 2001 and McGwire in 1987 were nothing alike. McGwire was a college superstar, an Olympic team member, a high first-round Draft pick. By '87, he'd crushed the ball for a half-season in Triple-A, and he'd even got a few games in the big leagues. It might have been a surprise for McGwire to make La Russa's Oakland A's in '87 … but it wasn't much of one.
Pujols, though, making the 2001 Cardinals would be a massive surprise. One year earlier, nobody had even heard of him. He was a 13th-round pick out of someplace called Maple Woods Community College. He was not drafted at all out of high school. He grew up a few miles away from Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, and even his hometown Kansas City Royals had not drafted him.
Still … there was something about the way Pujols played that demanded attention.
"Balls he swings at," La Russa said when asked why Pujols had caught his eye. "Balls he takes. The way the ball comes off his bat."
In the Cards' first intrasquad game, Pujols hit a homer and a triple.
By late February, the good-humored talk about Pujols actually making the team started to get a bit more serious. "La Russa has been playing Pujols sparingly," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in early March, "perhaps trying not to fall in love with him too soon."
It was no use, though. Everyone was in love. Whenever Pujols got into games, he hit. Whatever position they put him at on the field, he played competently. And there was something about the way he carried himself -- this was no rookie. He seemed spookily at ease.
"How's Pujols looking?" Cardinals minority owner Fred Hanser asked one day in mid-March.
"Obviously not ready," La Russa said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. It was at this point that La Russa was beginning to fight himself. Yes, he'd joked about it earlier, but La Russa had no intention of bringing a 21-year-old kid with one year of Minor League experience to an experienced big league club. But now Pujols was looking so good that everyone around La Russa -- including his general manager -- thought Pujols should stick.
"I'm one of the people who believes [Pujols] can play," general manager Walt Jocketty told reporters. "But I don't think Tony is convinced that he can."
"Every once in a while, you can see his inexperience," La Russa said. "That would be my answer to the fans. Like, he put on the wrong hat the other day. He put on the red hat instead of the blue one. So inexperience exists there."
That was a joke. But Pujols' dominance was anything but a joke. On March 23, Pujols singled and doubled while playing left field against Baltimore, and La Russa was asked again if he would bring up Pujols.
This exchange between reporter Rick Hummel and La Russa, as told in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is one for the history books:
Hummel: "Pujols is hitting .351 with eight extra-base hits among his 12 hits this spring. The reasonable thing to do may be to send Pujols to Class AAA for more seasoning. But the reality is he looks at home with the Major League team."
La Russa: "What's the difference between reason and reality? The reality is that he's playing like hell. The reason is that he probably would continue to do so if you keep playing him. So the key is to quit playing him."
It would take a while to unwind that response -- half joking, half serious, half baffled by how good Pujols looked. Every now and again, someone comes along who breaks all the rules, who shatters all expectations, who so rises to the moment that nobody is exactly sure what to do. It happened when Mickey Mantle showed up at Spring Training for the Yankees in 1951. It happened when Mark Fidrych showed up at Spring Training for Detroit in '76.
And it happened for Pujols in 2001. Two days after La Russa said he was leaning toward sending Pujols down, Pujols homered again. St. Louis moved him to Minor League camp and prepared to send him down. "We'll make a decision in the next day or two," Jocketty said.
And then … Bobby Bonilla pulled his left hamstring.
That sounds like a punchline. But it's true. Bonilla, who was 38 and the Cardinals' starting left fielder, pulled a hamstring, and that's when the real story begins. When Bonilla pulled the hamstring, the Cards had their excuse to put Pujols on the team. Pujols hit sixth and played left field on Opening Day. By the time Bonilla came off the DL, Pujols was already hitting .346 and slugging almost .700. As the coach in the movie "Hoosiers," once said, after that, it would take the National Guard to get Pujols out of the lineup.
Pujols would go on to one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, hitting .329/.403/.610 with 37 homers, 130 RBIs and 112 runs. He would finish fourth in the National League MVP Award voting. And he would become the best player in baseball and a force of nature for two World Series champion Cardinals teams.
"You're never ready for a player like Albert Pujols to come along," La Russa would say years later. "You're just thankful when he does."