Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals is the best young hitter in baseball. Heck, the 24-year-old first baseman may be the best young hitter in the history of the game (see "Stacking Up," page 28). At the start of the 2004 season, he had a career .334 average, 114 home runs, and 381 RBIs.
But there is something behind every one of those numbers that is not recorded on stat sheets, replayed on highlight shows, or seen by the fans. "What you don't see is how hard I work, how hard I prepare," he says.
Pujols has just finished one of his daily 2 1/2-hour off-season workouts. He lifts enough weights to sink a ship, watches videos of pitchers he'll face during the season, and spends serious time in the batting cage.
Despite his star status, he was one of the first position players on the Cardinals to arrive at spring training this season. He spent much of that time polishing his play at first base.
During the season, Pujols arrives early for games, takes cuts in the batting cages to make sure his swing is smooth, and watches more video on the opposing pitcher.
"Albert is so professional in his approach, whether it's the winter, the spring, or the summer," says Cardinal manager Tony La Russa.
All that study and preparation helps explain why Pujols is a fast starter (.385 average last April) and why, unlike other hot starters, he keeps punishing pitchers as the season progresses. In 2003, Pujols hit a hefty .346 after the All-Star break and ended the regular season with the majors' best average: .359.
"God gave me this natural ability," says Pujols. "But it's even better when you work hard and you put those two things together. [Then], it's unbelievable."
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