07/14/2003 8:40 PM ET
Fans and peers noticing Pujols
Outfielder receives the Top Online Vote-Getter Award
CHICAGO -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has known since Spring Training in 2001 that Albert Pujols is a special ballplayer. His teammates started to figure it out about that time, and opposing players caught on pretty quickly as well.
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
It seems the baseball-watching world at large has finally clued in. Apparently, that's what hitting over .360 with 27 homers in the first half will do. Pujols received the Top Online Vote-Getter Award as well as a trophy for being the top vote-getter overall among National League players in All-Star balloting. He was honored before participating in Monday night's Century21 Home Run Derby at U.S. Cellular Field.
Pujols was the only NL player to garner over 2,000,000 votes, with 2,030,702. He trailed only Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki in total votes. His 1,386,818 online votes set a new record in the history of online balloting.
The honors made for an appropriate cherry on top of Pujols' ice cream sundae of a week. With a series of recent magazine covers, the rush to the top of the balloting and one question after another from reporters during Monday's media availability session, it is clear Pujols is not merely a great player. He has achieved the status of legitimate superstar.
"It's hard to believe that he's (only now) getting some recognition," said Woody Williams, a first-time All-Star this year. "Day in and day out, the guy never takes a day off. He was supposed to have one the other day, and he came in to turn a double play at first base.
"For him to do what he does, moving around between first base and the outfield all the time -- and his defense is improving -- for him to have the offense he does, it's incredible. I don't think anybody's figured out really how to get him out yet."
La Russa has recently called Pujols the best player he has ever managed, pointing to the slugger's record numbers over his first two big-league seasons. Pujols is the first player in Major League history to begin his career with back-to-back seasons of a .300 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
This season, he has taken it a step further. He entered the All-Star break batting .368, with a .432 on-base percentage and .690 slugging percentage. He has smacked 27 home runs, giving him 98 for his career, to go with 31 doubles, 86 RBIs and 81 runs.
"He's going to be a Hall of Famer," said Gary Sheffield, a pretty fine hitter himself. "The fact that he is a right-handed hitter makes what he has done even more impressive than if he was a left-handed hitter or switch-hitter. To do this when he doesn't get to face too many left-handed pitchers is amazing."
It seemed no matter where you turned during Monday's National League media session, someone was asking a player about Pujols. And they practically formed a chorus singing his praises.
"He's a very professional hitter," Jim Edmonds said. "He's got a great idea of what he wants to do at a young age. That's very rare. He doesn't get excited too much, and he doesn't really get too down. He gets disappointed, but he doesn't get too down. If he can avoid the highs and lows and stay consistent with his talent, he can do anything he wants. It's awesome to watch."
Carlos Delgado marvels at the 23-year-old slugger. But he also cautions that some of the expectations lumped on Pujols -- for example, that he could be a Triple Crown contender -- might be unfair.
"Anything can be done in baseball," Delgado said. "Can he do it? I don't know. Is it hard? It's really hard. For power hitters, the average is the hardest thing. He doesn't have a problem with that. But it's an uphill battle."
As for Pujols, he's doing all he can to keep a level head.
"If you look at the numbers that I put up, you're always going to get attention (for doing that)," he said. "It seems like it's different guys every year. but it doesn't matter at all. It doesn't change the way I play the game. I think it's even making me better because I want to go out there and try to have fun and play the game, and not think about what you guys talk about -- Triple Crown, .400.
"It's nothing that I have in my mind right now. It's nothing that I want to do. It's something that, if it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen."
It could happen. And if it does, people will definitely be watching.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.