Pujols returns to city he never really left

June 20th, 2019

“If they never remember the championships, if they never remember the MVPs, if they never remember the Gold Gloves, or the Silver Sluggers; if they never remember any of it, but someone says, ‘He loved people,’ he’ll take that.” -- Todd Perry

expects there to be a moment, perhaps many, when the magnitude of it all overtakes him. When he feels the significance of walking back onto a field he last walked off a World Series champion, returning to a city where his name once carried the same cachet as Ozzie and Lou, Gibby and Stan.

“I think,” Pujols cautions ahead of his return to Busch Stadium on Friday, “it’ll be pretty emotional.”

People will dub it a homecoming, play up this weekend’s three-game series between the Cardinals and Angels as the first time Pujols has returned to St. Louis since a surprising split with an organization that stumbled upon a superstar when it took a chance on a Maple Woods Community College player with its 13th-round pick in the 1999 MLB Draft.

But what if someone told you that Pujols never actually left? That his fingerprints here are as permanent today as they were when he donned the Birds on the Bat. That his reach across St. Louis has, since he signed with the Angels following the 2011 season, been as meaningful and powerful as it ever was during those three MVP seasons or pair of championship runs.

His legacy in the Gateway City runs deeper than the 445 home runs or 1,329 RBIs he tallied while playing there. History assures us that such stats are bound to be broken. What won’t be, however, is Pujols’ tie to the city, especially to those in the area living with Down Syndrome. It is a group that adores, admires and appreciates him as much now as it ever did before.

Pujols may have left the Cardinals. But he never left them.

“It was never about the uniform he wore,” says Todd Perry, executive director of the Pujols Family Foundation. “It was never about who he played for, or if he played baseball at all. This was about the authenticity of having a child with Down Syndrome, understanding the gaps and holes in services, and knowing he could do something about it.”

That something started in 2005, when, inspired by his daughter, Isabella, Pujols opened a foundation to serve individuals who were born with Down Syndrome. The Pujols Family Foundation has since expanded its reach to other places, including the Dominican Republic, but its primary work remains focused on providing for those with a genetic disorder that afflicts approximately one in every 700 babies born in the United States, according to the National Down Syndrome Association.

“At the end of the day, he is a dad that has a child with Down Syndrome,” says Jen Teemer, director of programing and mission advancement for the foundation. “I think about how this girl has become the inspiration for serving so many families. The lives that are forever changed because of her is so amazing.”

The Pujols Family Foundation began with humble goals: Offer one event a month for those with Down Syndrome. By the end of Pujols’ tenure in St. Louis, the foundation was running 80 events and programs. Now, there are about 125 taking place annually.

Teemer estimates that 60 percent of the foundation’s ongoing programs and experiences remain in the St. Louis area. Pujols still returns to participate in several of them.

“In St. Louis, you want to leave a good legacy -- not just on the field, but off the field,” Pujols says. “For me, everywhere I go, I want to leave my footprint for other people to follow. I care about people. That’s the most important thing. God had given me so much in my life, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to give that to others.”

To truly understand Pujols’ far-reaching impact, it’s best to turn to those forever changed by it. Below you’ll find stories of five St. Louisans who will tell you, unequivocally, that this weekend isn’t Pujols’ first time back. For them, it’s simply another visit from the hero who never said goodbye.

Pooja Vasishta, age 24

All these years later, the words still sting. Words from a pediatrician, whose recommendation it was that Rajitha and Shashi Vasishta “just forget about” their newborn and have another child instead. This one, the doctor implied, would never be more than an inconvenience.

If only he could see Pooja now, perhaps by peering through the window of the St. Louis Family Martial Arts studio to watch her kick, punch and jump. He’d find a black belt roped around her waist.

A family that spent the first seven months of Pooja’s life desperate for a diagnosis to explain why their baby girl, born in India, wasn’t developing as expected, now marvels at a young woman whose growing confidence can’t be stopped.

“It has become her village,” says Pooja’s mom, Rajitha. “Long ago, I would think about what her future would be, and I would be kind of depressed because I had no connection to anybody else going through the same journey we were. After moving here to St. Louis, I felt like, ‘OK. We can do this.’”

She’s reminded of that each Thursday night as Pooja joins about two dozen individuals with Down Syndrome in Dwight Trower’s martial arts class. It’s a program the Pujols Family Foundation started three months after Pujols signed with the Angels.

The blueprint came from the Pujols’ own involvement. Albert would spend evenings there quietly watching his children, Sophia and A.J., participate in a class. Later, his wife Deidre enrolled, too. She asked Trower if he would consider opening a class for those with Down Syndrome.

What she didn’t know was that Trower had a niece, Katie, with Down Syndrome who had been taking lessons from him since she was seven years old. Of course, he would head the program.

It started as a self-defense summer course, then evolved into a yearlong, weekly class. Now, with participants ageing from seven to 52, there is a need for two. Twenty-two of his Down Syndrome students have earned black belts -- a process that requires weekly attendance for nearly five years. Sixteen will test for their second-degree black belt in August.

“I believe that sometimes people accomplish great things not because they believe they can, but because someone else believes they can,” Trower says. “We just keep raising the bar.”

That includes Pooja, who now spends about 10-12 hours per week participating in programs run by the Pujols Family Foundation or events that stem from the relationships she has formed within it. There are book and glee clubs, dancing and cooking classes. The martial arts class, however, has been especially impactful for someone who was once a frequent target of bullying.

Now, not only can Pooja protect herself from physical intimidation, but she also possesses the language skills needed to fend off verbal attacks.

“Now I know I can follow my dreams,” Pooja says. “I feel strong. I feel good. It makes me happy.”

She’s not alone. Trower has so many other such stories he can share, whether it be about the young man who, though he couldn’t balance on one leg when he first showed up, has mastered his kicks, or another who was so taken by Trower’s teaching on healthy eating that he now proudly shares what he had for dinner upon arriving for Thursday night class.

“They learn they can do so much more than they or anyone else thought,” Trower says. “The Pujols’ have created an entire community for people, for families, with Down Syndrome. And now, I don’t think you could stop it.”

Devin Haffey, age 28

Devin’s mother, Debbie Haffey, remembers precisely where she was when her coworker sent her a text breaking the news of Pujols’ decision to head to Anaheim. She reacted as any Angels fan would -- with exuberance.

See, Haffey had long been connected to the sports community in southern California. She was the on-call ambulance driver at Anaheim Ducks games for 15 years and was working first aid for the Angels when they made Pujols a 10-year, $240-million commitment.

What she couldn’t have known then, however, was the connection the arriving superstar would soon have with her daughter.

Devin, who survived 12 surgeries during her first 18 months of life, had struggled to receive the necessary special services in school. But then Pujols came to town, bringing the blueprint of his foundation with him. Devin was just starting to get involved when her father’s job forced the family to relocate to, of all places, St. Louis.

“Once we got the house unpacked,” Debbie Haffey recalls, “the Pujols office was the first phone call we made.”

A few days later, an invitation arrived in the mail. Devin was going to prom, compliments of the Pujols Family Foundation.

There could be no grander introduction to her new community than at the St. Louis Autumn Prom, which rolls out the red carpet (literally) to host approximately 600 individuals with Down Syndrome. Dresses are donated, as are updos and haircuts. Once the partygoers arrive on location, they dance to tunes from the Smash Band (a local party staple), and enjoy cuisine donated by area restaurants.

It’s an event that still brings Pujols back to St. Louis, where he spends all night dancing and posing for photos. When he spotted Devin standing by herself at that first prom, he immediately went over to introduce himself. A friendship bloomed.

“He is everything,” Devin says of Pujols. “He plays baseball. He’s a kind man. He is generous and sweet. Albert makes my heart happy.”

So does her new community of friends, a group like none she ever had in California. They maintain an active text chain and have regular meetings during the week. Book club, sleepovers, social events, there’s always something on Devin’s calendar. She’s described by her mother now as a “social butterfly.”

There’s not much the family misses about California these days, though there are some reminders of that time in their lives. Perhaps none more symbolic than the baseball jersey Devin still keeps from the team she played on as a teenager. She had been assigned to the Cardinals at the time. And her number? It’s 5.

“Maybe way back all those years ago, there was somebody telling us we were going to end up with this blessing,” Debbie Haffey says. “We never had friends like this in California, and it’s all because of the people we’ve…”

Devin interjects.

“It’s all because of Albert.”

Teddy Mahan, age 2

Tom Mahan was drawn to the Cardinals like so many others -- through the Stan Musial stories passed down by his grandfather. Schooling later brought him from upstate New York to St. Louis, where he fit right in with his fandom and arrived just in time to see the emergence of a young first baseman who would go on to win the decade Triple Crown.

Tom and his wife, Jessica, had heard about Pujols’ charitable efforts, but admittedly never paid much attention to exactly what his mission entailed. That changed a few years ago when they learned their first child, Teddy, would be born with Down Syndrome.

If there was ever a couple capable of handling that news, it might have been this one. Jessica is a special education teacher. Tom works as a research scientist studying Alzheimer’s Disease, which makes him acutely aware that those with Down Syndrome have a greatly increased risk of developing dementia. He had also been a Special Olympics volunteer.

Together, they logically processed the news.

“The next step was just hoping that we could meet his needs,” Jessica Mahan remembers. “Resources like the Pujols Family Foundation have been monumental in helping us feel like we are a part of a community and feel like we are doing the best that we can to give Teddy every opportunity.”

Which is why you’ll now find Teddy, every Wednesday morning this summer, circling up with other young children and their parents for a music therapy class that helps to enhance language skills and socialization. There is singing (by the adults) and playing (by the kids), bopping of heads, and even some sign language introduced.

Teddy perks up as he hears his favorite songs and shows off his improving gross motor skills by strumming a guitar.

“It’s amazing to see so many of the kids light up and become animated,” Jessica says. “[Teddy] used to be an observer. When he first joined, he would take it in. Now, flash forward, he’s using sign language a lot more. He’s more participatory, interacting with the other kids, following directions. It’s done a lot.”

The program, called Rattle and Roll, was an offshoot of an adult music therapy class that emerged through the Pujols Family Foundation’s partnership with Maryville (Mo.) University. That class encourages musical expression in all forms, including singing, dancing or playing rhythmic instruments.

This newer program targets children ages one through five.

“For me, I was a huge fan of Albert as a baseball player,” Tom says. “And I’ve become even more of a fan of what he does off the field. I kind of wondered and worried that the longer he’s in LA, some of this would start to dwindle back here. But the fact that he has continued to provide so much support for the Down Syndrome community, it means a lot to our family.”

Bret Hammond, age 17

The teenager known as “Buzzer Beater Bret” enjoys an especially meaningful connection to Pujols.

Bret Hammond wasn’t yet in elementary school when his father, Jim, took him to one of the Pujols Family Foundation’s first father-son bowling events. From that came opportunities to appear alongside Pujols in commercial shoots and stand next to him on the Busch Stadium field.

The Hammonds were there when Pujols showed up at an area fishing tournament hours after fracturing his wrist in 2011. And when he came to a bowling event on crutches, refusing to miss it even though he couldn’t walk after fouling a ball off his foot.

“Who does that?” Jim Hammond says, still in awe. “Normal people would call in sick.”

But nothing about either of these families is normal. At the same time Pujols’ career was beginning to flourish in St. Louis, the Hammonds prepared to welcome their first child. Their doctor had bragged about how perfect the pregnancy had gone, which made what followed even harder to comprehend.

Right away, Jim knew something was wrong. He could read the shifting mood among the delivery nurses and saw the look on the doctor’s face when Bret was delivered. They learned of the Down Syndrome diagnosis soon after.

“You’re not pushing two wheelchairs,” Jim Hammond assured his wife, who was instantly overcome by concern for how she’d care for a child with Down Syndrome and a parent with Parkinson’s Disease.

Sure enough, Bret has never felt confined. He earned a spot on his high school’s golf team and has been a star in the Pujols Family Foundation’s annual All-Star Basketball game the last three years running. He hit the game-winning shot his first two years on the team.

“I’m not nervous,” Bret said recently, while taking a break from his job as a staff member at a local summer camp program. “I know what it takes to win.”

As do all the participants in Albert’s All-Star Basketball game, one of the foundation’s marquee annual events. It started in 2011 and brings Pujols back to St. Louis every January. Preparation begins months in advance, when the Pujols Family Foundation holds a two-day tryout. The top 12 players, boys and girls ages 15 and older, are selected. Then they get to work.

Jim Hammond and other volunteer coaches put the team through weekly practices, where they run complicated drills (think: three-man weave) in advance of their showcase game against members of the Missouri Baptist University men’s and women’s basketball teams.

The event, which pairs Pujols and other “celebrity” players with the Down Syndrome participants, typically draws an audience of over 1,000 spectators.

“We view the game as an opportunity to really show the community what people with Down Syndrome are capable of,” Teemer says. “For them, it’s like their World Series or their Super Bowl. And Albert is a part of that day.”

Since leaving the Cardinals, Pujols hasn’t missed a single game.

“No matter what the publicity was when he left, he stayed,” says Jim Hammond. “He’s given [Bret] the opportunity to do things I never dreamed he would do. It’s going to be someone like Albert who keeps what our kids need and what our families need in the headlines. I think he will always be here.”

Zoe Klevorn, age 5

Michelle Klevorn was supposed to be on bedrest. Doctor’s orders. But she wanted to get a glimpse at the path she’d soon be navigating, and this was a unique opportunity to do so.

So Klevorn waddled her way to the Pujols Family Foundation’s annual new mothers’ luncheon, where women with children with Down Syndrome gather to share their experiences and encourage those soon to join them. It was September 2013, and Deidre Pujols had traveled back to St. Louis to serve as the guest speaker.

“After being there,” Klevorn says, “I just knew that we were going to be fine.”

Her daughter Zoe, born four days later, is closing in on her sixth birthday now. She survived open heart surgery at 10 weeks old and will soon begin kindergarten. Some of her best friends have been made through Pujols Family Foundation events Zoe has attended.

“Some people do things to check a box,” Michelle Klevorn says. “That’s not Albert. It would have been so easy for him to say, ‘I’m going to take this to Anaheim.’ But he is genuinely invested in this and in the love he has for our children. And you can see that. There’s a love that’s so amazing.”

Zoe tells anyone who will listen about her dreams to play in Pujols’ All-Star Basketball game when she gets older. She’s looking forward to attending prom, too. For now, one of the highlights is the annual mother-daughter pajama party.

The latest took place last month, when about 80 girls with Down Syndrome arrived at a local church to find it transformed into a tropical paradise. The Moana-themed event featured a live princess, movie showing, arts and crafts, food and other activities. One of Zoe’s first stops was to see the balloon artist.

Though it’s not technically an overnight occasion, many girls come dressed in their PJs. Zoe buys a new pair to coordinate with that year’s princess theme. And like all Pujols Family Foundation events, the night comes with no cost to the participants.

“You can do everything we offer, or if you just want to sit around with your friends and eat food, that’s cool, too,” Teemer says. “What we create there is just an opportunity to come out and be around people who understand the road that they’re traveling.”

The Klevorns hope to spend part of their weekend at Busch Stadium, rooting on the first baseman whose platform has provided opportunity, enrichment and critical resources for their growing daughter. And they’re not alone.

The Pujols Family Foundation will fill two suites for Friday’s series opener. The foundation also sold about 400 tickets for Sunday’s game. You’ll find -- or hear -- the group in Big Mac Land that day. Other families have purchased tickets on their own.

It’ll be an opportunity to celebrate a superstar’s return to his baseball roots -- but mostly a way to say thank you for staying connected.

“When my husband and I talk about how lucky we are to be in St. Louis, the Pujols Family Foundation is one of the main reasons why,” Michelle Klevorn says. “His commitment to the community, to our community, that he has given and continues to give, it’s unbelievable.”