As Scott Rolen and I leaned on the batting cage at home plate, we watched the hitter in the batter's box very closely. Rolen and I had our own language, so we often added running commentary to everything from our sore hamstrings to broken-bat singles.
But on this day, Vladimir Guerrero was taking batting practice for the Montreal Expos and Rolen paused and said, "This guy is so much better than I am that it's ridiculous!" Coming from one of the best players in the league, I laughed and then I actually thought about it.
Every big leaguer has this moment, when you come down from being in the "best of the best" club and to realizing there is always someone better.
Great players can cause a lot of major leaguers to feel inadequate, yet no one like Albert Pujols could make every single All-Star say, "I could never be that good."
It's not that there aren't superstars all around us. Many players instill fear in their opponents one way or another. Pitching coaches have lost sleep thinking about how to pitch to Ryan Braun. Giants catchers have had nightmares about how to block Tim Lincecum's strikeout pitch. All-Star teams are full of players who break your heart and your back.
But not in the way Pujols does it.
Pujols, now $254 million richer as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, has managed to send shivers down an entire organization's spine when he comes to bat, not just the opposing team on the field. In fact, he probably sends shivers down his teammates' spines. Prince Fielder steps into the batter's box, and opponents say, "Oh no, this is bad." Pujols steps into the batter's box, and you hold your breath and so does everyone in the entire stadium. Forget about speaking.
As a first-time major leaguer, I enjoyed the awe that a young Barry Bonds put in some of my veteran teammates. Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston were like kids watching him take batting practice. But there was always a "but." Not because of his ability, but because everyone has a "but." Bonds was amazing, but it seemed like he turned it on and off. Matt Kemp is a six-tool player, but he struggles on balls hit over his head in center field. Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in the game, but he hasn't done it long enough.
Pujols? "But" nothing
While they may be fair, criticisms of other great players aren't much compared to everyone else's list of flaws, especially when you look at their talent and performance in a given year. It is not like when people are saying, "He can't hit the curveball," or "He falls apart after the fifth inning."
Keep in mind that the first day you get the call to the big leagues, you have an out-of-body experience. Everything you have done on a baseball field leads to that moment, and you can finally say that you made it to the top.
But shortly after that, you will have a Rolen-like moment when you see a ceiling in your future. Sure, you are still getting better in other ways, but for me it meant I would most likely not hit 50 home runs in a season.
True, I could outrun Pujols, but the gifts connected to what you have at birth don't count. Pujols has intangibles in his make-up that make everything he does seem otherworldly. I was faster; he ran the bases better. James Loney is more agile around the bag; Pujols has better instincts. Pujols breaks his arm; he comes back even better. Even if you are physically better than he is, he is still, well, better.
Pujols combines tremendous strength and hand action with off-the-charts mental toughness, instincts, intelligence and sheer drive. He does it to the point where you wonder if the physical skills even matter at all. It's like there is a spiritual cloud where he is standing alone on the field and everything else is just background noise. He'd make a heckuva surgeon.
In 2003, when we had a critical five-game series against the Cardinals, we knew where Pujols was at all times. Then when he came to the plate, time stopped, even in a lineup with Jim Edmonds and Rolen. But just like knowing where Michael Jordan was on the court or where Wayne Gretzky was on the ice or where Mia Hamm was relative to the ball, it didn't matter because you could not avoid them. Their influence was not just in what they were doing, but in their influence on their teammates, the anxiety put on their opponents, and the effect on anyone or everything else in their proximity. They had an aura.
I tweeted "Is Pujols human?" after Pujols hit those back-to-back walk-off home runs against the Cubs this past season. Of course, everyone knew the answer was "yes," but it was a consensus opinion that what he does on a baseball field is often beyond the scope of even human comprehension. (How did he hit that slider at his ankles? Ridiculous.) Ask David Patton, a Rule 5 pick for the Cubs, who had to intentionally walk Pujols on April 16, 2009, and then nine days later Pujols hits Patton's first pitch for a low-flying missile out of Busch Stadium. Did he time Patton's fastball from an intentional walk nine days earlier?
I feel for Cardinals fans because clearly Pujols was much more than what he accomplished on the field. He gave his heart and soul to the communities of St. Louis. He was involved in ways that changed lives. I remember talking to him at a charity event for the Players' Trust before a game in St. Louis. I remember thinking, "This guy is everywhere."
But I would also say this to Cardinals fans: Playing against Albert Pujols only makes me believe even more that he is a performer you need to share. The world needs to see him work because the work is transformational. Let the American League have heart palpitations for a while. And most importantly, if it makes you feel a little better, I am sure he will carry St. Louis' banner with him, every step of the way.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville