by Phil Johnson
oday I'm going to recommend a book about Albert Pujols. But I need to preface it with a disclaimer.
I really hate the Cardinals.
A little personal history: I was a casual Cardinals fan for awhile in my adolescence. I grew up in Tulsa, and the Cardinals' Triple-A farm club was based there in the late '60s. So a local radio station broadcast all the Cardinals' games. I listened to a lot of games, and naturally, I more or less thought of myself as a Cardinals fan.
But I turned against the Cardinals during high school because (get this:) I found Harry Caray irritating in the extreme. (He and Jack Buck were the Cardinals' announcers in those days.)
After high school I went away to Moody Bible Institute and stayed in Chicago for most of the '70s. I met Darlene for the first time during the last week of June 1977, and fifteen minutes after meeting her I invited her to come with me to a baseball game that weekend. So our very first date was at Wrigley Field. (There's even a brick in the pavement at Wrigley today commemorating the event.)
Darlene and I were married two weeks shy of the anniversary of that first date, and our first apartment was a block from Wrigley. So you see: no matter how badly the Cubs do—and their bungling frequently exceeds even my worst expectations—we are locked-in, lifelong, die-hard Cubs fans.
All true Cubs fans hate the Cardinals. When you invest your emotional energies in a team who are perennial losers, it tends to stir even stronger (and certainly darker) passions than a winning team would. The Cardinals are the Cubs' closest, oldest rivals, and let's be candid: Cardinals fans are punks. Plus, the Cardinals sent Harry Caray to Chicago. So there's a lot of pent-up, well-deserved hate.
Yet (and in all candor this seriously troubles everyone else in my family) I've always liked Albert Pujols. Not when he's playing the Cubs, mind you. But when he's playing any other team, I love to see him do well. He's a truly great baseball player with the potential to be one of the greatest ever. More than that, I like it that he is bold with his testimony for Christ. But I didn't realize how bold, until I read this in Pujols: More than the Game, by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth:
When an opposing player would get to first base, [Pujols] would ask them, "What do you think is going to happen to you when you die?" or "If you died today, where do you think you’re going to go?" (p. 141)
Scott Lamb kindly sent me a pre-release copy of the book last fall, but dual back surgeries and other difficulties hindered me from giving the publisher an endorsement in time for the book's pre-release publicity. My failure to get an endorsement into the book's press kits deeply gratified the other Cubs fans in my family, but the truth is, I really liked this book. It's a very engaging and well-written look at the personal side of Pujols' life and career. He is as likable as he is athletically gifted.
And he is the consummate baseball player:
When compared to the legends of the game, Pujols stands alongside Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio as one of only four players to have less than five hundred career strikeouts and a career batting average over .330 at the time they hit their three-hundredth home run.
Yankee hero Lou Gehrig posted nine consecutive seasons with thirty doubles, a .300 batting average, thirty home runs, and one hundred runs batted in. Has anyone else accomplished this feat? Nobody except Pujols.
In more than one hundred years of National League baseball, nobody ranks ahead of Pujols in extra base hits (744) within their first 5,000 career at bats. He gets around a lot. (p. 7)
Here's something that makes that even more amazing: Pujols was passed over by most scouts who saw him play in college. He was drafted in 1999 by the Cardinals in the 13th round—the 402nd player picked that year. Most players drafted that late never make it to the major leagues.
But what interests me far more than Pujols' incredible career is his commitment to Christ. Most athletes effusively thank God when they win, and many profess some kind of faith in Christ. Albert Pujols is a serious Christian.
I've spoken at a few Baseball Chapel meetings, and while there are many truly committed believers in Major League Baseball, there are even more who treat religion like a good-luck charm, attending those chapels before important games for purely superstitious reasons. Pujols is not of that type:
Pujols' Christian walk and leadership are best characterized by passion and consistency. "Sometimes he really gets going, and once something hits him, you can tell he's just passionate about it," [pitcher Kyle] Mclellan said. "I think he tries to keep quiet, and then something will come up and he just can't help it anymore. Sometimes when we are on the road, the chapel leader for the other team is busy or there's not a lot of time for chapel. But Albert will be chomping at the bit, saying, 'I'll lead it. Let's go. I'll give everybody the Word.'" (p. 91).
Lamb and Ellsworth don't idealize Pujols' faith, though. He has a temper, and he has been known to shoot off his mouth. The book candidly chronicles some of these episodes (one of the best examples of this is pp. 150-53). The book also includes a chapter on steroid abuse and Pujols' response to that scandal.
If you're looking for some recreational reading to get you into the mood as baseball season begins, Pujols: More than the Game, by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth is this year's recommendation from me.
Yesterday was the season opener for the Cardinals. They lost (at home) 5-3 in eleven innings to the Padres. May that be a harbinger of things to come this season for the team. But I hope Pujols has another career season (except when the Cardinals play the Cubs). And the reason I can say that right out loud is that if he shines again and the Cardinals want to keep him, it will cost them a trainload of money.
By the way, in yesterday's opener, Pujols tied a major league record by grounding into three double plays. And that's an achievement every Cubs fan can applaud.
This intrepid Cubs fan showed up yesterday at Busch Stadium to honor Albert Pujols and celebrate the Cardinals' loss.