Baseball Books Reviewed: Pujols: More Than the Game

Pujols: More Than the Game by Tim Ellsworth and Scott Lamb. (Thomas Nelson, 258 pg., $24.99). PB, 2011.

First a disclaimer: I am a long-time Cardinals fan and any book that involves them I like as long as it is well-written. I like this book.

Anyone who has seen Albert Pujols hit a home run--and there have been ample opportunities since in his ten + years in the major leagues he has hit over 400 of them--should have noted two things: the grace and power of his swing and his gesture as he crosses home plate, looking and pointing skyward. Those two things define who he is: a gifted athlete who works hard to make the best use of his gift and a man who believes in giving thanks to God for bestowing it on him. As he has said: “Baseball is simply my platform to elevate Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.”

That assertion explains the appeal of Pujols to the authors, both of whom work for church related institutions: Tim Ellsworth as director of news and media relations at Union University in Tennessee and Scott Lamb as director of research at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

If the Christian basis of the book makes you uncomfortable, then this is not the book for you; which would be a shame because in passing it by, you would be denying yourself an opportunity to enjoy a recounting of Pujols' emergence as arguably the best player of this era, as indeed one of the greatest players in the history of the game. It’s possible to pick and choose only the chapters that revel in Pujols' statistics and his on-field achievements and then to skim or skip altogether the other chapters, but this would hardly be recommended because you would miss the authors' explanation of what inspires their subject, of what makes him not only a great player, but a thoroughly admirable human being.

What you probably won’t understand (I certainly don’t) even if you read the book from cover to cover is how every team, including the Cardinals, saw fit to pass over Pujols until the thirteenth round of the draft. The authors provide various explanations for this monumental oversight offered to them by baseball people. In his foreword to the book Joe Posnanski makes several suggestions; citing questions about Pujols' ability to play defense at the big league level, concerns about his swing, and concerns about his body type. Lamb and Wellsworth add to the list, and they begin their chapter on the draft with a quote from Dave Karaff, the Cardinal scout who had seen him play most often: “I don’t think any of us knew the ability he had to adjust. And that’s the name of the game.” But how could so many people be so wrong?

As the authors point out, Albert came to the United States at the age of sixteen without knowing English, yet he would graduate from Fort Osage High School a semester early. Trouble adapting? As his coaches in high school, in summer leagues, and then at Maple Woods Community College recognized, he was hard-working and quick to develop a sense of the game, and his performance at both levels demonstrated he could hit both for average and with power. The local papers raved about him, and numerous scouts saw him play (Karaff most often), yet 201 players were drafted ahead of him. He was primarily playing shortstop in those days, but he was hardly the first draftee who needed to change positions, as indeed he did, ending up of course as a gold glove first baseman.

Pujols was disappointed by the obvious doubts about his ability, and that disappointment occasioned one of the few instances in which he acted with less than Christian charity, making a few years later some negative remarks about Karaff. Lamb/Wellsworth do not avoid discussing this lapse, as well as others, by someone they regard as an exemplary Christian, nor do they excuse them. They also mention a spat Albert had with baseball writers which led one St. Louis columnist to say he was turning into Barry Bonds; and they describe a scuffle he had with the Houston catcher Gary Bennett after being hit by a pitch. Clearly, Pujols is not perfect as a man, anymore than he is perfect as a baseball player: he is just very, very good at being both. And what makes him so are his natural physical gifts and his strong work ethic. The authors also devote an entire chapter to the rumor circulated during the time the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs was being prepared that Pujols would be named as a user. Even as the report was on the verge of being released, “sources deemed credible” said he was named, and the internet buzzed with that “news.” The only problem with the assertion is that it was false, and as the authors make clear, anybody who really knew Pujols would have known it was false.

In keeping with the Christian underpining of the book, the authors describe at length how Pujols and his wife Deidre came to form the Pujols Family Foundation. Its mission statement is “To live and share our commitment to faith, family, and others." The main goal of the foundation is to benefit ”people with {a} Down syndrome {b} disabilities and/or life-threatening illnesses as well as {c} children and families living in impoverished conditions in the Dominican Republic.” The first emphases are the result of the fact that when Albert first met Deidre she already had a child who suffered from Down Syndrome. The last derives from Albert’s continuing affection for the land of his childhood though he is now a US citizen. The authors devote two whole chapters to the efforts to fulfill these aims, as his commitment to them is hardly casual.

Surprisingly, there is only a brief reference in the book to The Question that is in the mind of every Cardinal fan: will Albert Pujols still be a St. Louis Cardinal next year. The answer is maybe--or maybe not. The account in chapter 14 of the negotiations in 2004 which led to the contract that is now expiring is not particularly reassuring, but one has to believe Albert when he says, “This isn’t only about being a baseball player. It’s about having the opportunity to change lives.... It’s nice what I do on the baseball field ... but I want to be remembered as a man who helped people and had an impact on their lives.... I know I’m not going to play baseball forever. But I’m never going to stop giving back.”

Reviewed by: William J. McGill (May 15, 2011)