Though he is arguably the best player in the game of baseball today, Pujols strives to become even better on the field while off the diamond helping to make the world a better place. That is the same dual mission he began even before joining the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001.
Pujols was recognized after the 2008 season with at least ten major awards, many of which acknowledged both the player and the man. They included The Dick Schaap Memorial Player of the Year and National League Player of the Year Awards from the MLB Players Alumni Association, the Players Choice Player of the Year Award and National League Outstanding Player Award voted by his peers, the Oscar Charleston Legacy Award from The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Sporting News and This Week in Baseball MLB Player of the Year awards and an NL Silver Slugger Award.
The 29-year-old first baseman earned them all, as he ranked second in the NL in batting average and on-base percentage and first in intentional walks, total bases and slugging. Albert's OPS of 1.114 was not only the league-best, it was his personal career-best.
The crowning glory was his second NL Most Valuable Player Award. Pujols has finished in the top four in the voting in seven of his eight years but has taken home the award only twice.
Yet all his baseball successes take a back seat to Pujols' drive to help his fellow man. The two are very different, yet completely intertwined in his DNA.
Pujols himself is the first to acknowledge that.
"You can't compare. You have two different genes," he explained when taking a break from the batting cage in Jupiter, Florida last week.
Pujols may be just as proud for winning the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award from Major League Baseball for his community service and baseball results as he is in winning the MVP Award.
The Pujols Family Foundation, established by Deidre and Albert Pujols in 2005, has combined fundraising with monetary gifts and events to help those with Down Syndrome and led humanitarian missions focused on medical and dental care for the poor in the Dominican Republic.
"Helping other people – that is what you play for. I think that is my responsibility. As a baseball player, God has blessed me with more than what I even deserve and I want to make sure I get the opportunity to keep blessing others," Albert said.
Just as in baseball, Pujols cannot carry out his work alone. He goes far out of his way to spread the credit among the many with whom he works.
"It is very special when we take our friends from St. Louis and other people from the St. Louis area and all around the United States that support us – not just with their money, but with their time to volunteer.
"Every time we have an event, we have a lot of people volunteer. We are really blessed to have those people do that. Like I always tell people, we could not have done it - me and my wife - all by ourselves. We had to have the help of other people. I think that is why we see life changing every day through our Foundation," he explained.
Pujols views his extraordinary baseball skills as a vehicle to enable him to do more with more for more.
"The home runs and whatever it is – obviously it is great. That is the platform God has given me, but it is what you have done for the Lord and for people who really look at you as a role model. That is what I try to be. I try to extend those people and pass on the blessing that God has given to me," Pujols said.
Over the winter, while many Cardinals fans were wondering about Pujols' recovery from elbow surgery and whether or not he would play for his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, his other genes were working him overtime.
First, Pujols needed to finalize the focus of the Foundation's 2008-09 mission to the Dominican. The primary drive was to improve sleeping conditions for disadvantaged families. The trip was Called Operation Sound Asleep and was carried out by a team of seven. It was scheduled from January 28 through February 2.
"Every year I go and I look at what their needs are and I go by that. This year, we went with a small group and we passed out bed frames and mattresses because that is something that they really needed. The conditions the families and kids were sleeping in were very bad," Pujols explained.
On their website at PujolsFamilyFoundation.org, Jen Cooper, Foundation program manager, went into considerable detail on the gravity of the problem.
"I had seen pictures that were taken of these "beds" but nothing could have prepared me for seeing it in person. Many families had constructed something similar to a bed out of whatever they could find. In a lot of cases that would be a board on cinder blocks with sheets stacked on top to provide some kind of padding. If a family was fortunate enough to have a mattress, it was in such a state that you would not even let your dog sleep on it. And there wasn't just one or even two people sleeping on one of these beds but many times there would be 4 or 5 sleeping on one bed," she recounted.
This winter, an earlier trip focused on dental needs had to be scrubbed, but plans were adjusted and medical care was also given by two physicians on the team.
"In November, we were going to take the dentists again, but we couldn't make it because some of the doctors could not arrange their schedules. But a couple of the other doctors and a couple of the volunteers ended up going with us to pass out the beds and the frames. It was a very good experience. We had a small group and we had a very good time. We ended up blessing others at the same time," beamed the slugger.
In selecting the locations, the group targeted the neediest towns, roughshod communities established for sugar cane field workers called "bateyes". The initial focus was on one such batey called Aleman.
"We went to some bateyes, which are places we have been before from previous trips – the small communities," Pujols recalled.
The Foundation has a partner with whom they have worked in the past. That makes a big difference in selecting locations, focus and logistics.
"We work with Compassion International. They are more than a foundation because they extend their hands, not just in Latin America but all over. Compassion International has families in their program and those are the bateyes they choose for us," explained Pujols.
Because Compassion International has an ongoing presence in the area, they are able to advise Albert and Dee Dee on the greatest unmet needs to address.
"Those are the bateyes they pretty much serve all year long so they know what the needs are. It is not easy (deciding where to focus), but they make it a little easier for us. When we go down there, we know where we need to go and prepare ourselves," he noted.
The Foundation also helped support the local economy by hiring a Dominican company to build and deliver the beds.
Pujols explains. "Over there, there is a manufacturer that makes the beds and it is easy. They can make a drop order and we can be ready. So when we need the beds, they have them ready for us at that time."
In addition to the immediate work, the team also began investigating their fall-winter 2009 mission.
"Every time we go, we take one day to visit one of the places to make sure it is one of the right places to come back the next year," Albert said.
In reality, Operation Sound Asleep 2009 is not yet complete.
"We ordered 200 beds and we ended up passing out fifty while I was there. My wife is going back next month to pass out the other 150 beds... Batey La Pajas is where we are going to pass out the rest," Albert said.
When comparing his two missions, Pujols seems most sincere when putting baseball behind his humanitarian efforts.
"What I do down there in the Dominican and what I do here in the States with the special needs kids is really special to me. I don't think there is anything that I could compare it to. It is better than hitting a grand slam in Game Seven of the World Series.
"It is a good feeling, putting a smile on those kids and their families," Pujols concluded.
All photos are provided through the cooperation of the Pujols Family Foundation at PujolsFamilyFoundation.org.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Catch his Cardinals commentary daily at his blog, The Cardinal Nation.
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