The fire burns Success is not affecting Pujols' work habits

Saturday, March 26, 2005

JUPITER, Fla. -- There's no satisfying Albert Pujols.

No one in baseball history has had a better first four seasons than the Cardinals' first baseman. He's the only player to hit 30 or more homers every year, he's only the third player to reach 500 RBIs along with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and he already has piled up 787 hits and a .333 average.

All of this success at such a young age, and Pujols, 25, hungers for more. So he worked out for five hours a day during the offseason and behaves nothing like a coddled star on the spring training field, getting the most out of every little drill.

"I think he's better than ever," manager Tony La Russa said. "Better everything. Off the field, on the field, practice, clubhouse, everything.

"He's approaching his prime."

La Russa said the true greats never let up, invoking names such as Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial. Pujols, already twice the MVP runner-up and the third-place finisher in the balloting last year, knows no other way to go about it.

"I never take things for granted," Pujols said. "When I take things for granted, that's when I'm going to quit this game. When I wear the Cardinal uniform or anybody else's uniform I respect this game, because this is a blessing.

"This is a great opportunity and why would you want to take things for granted?"

The way Pujols sees it, the impressive numbers -- and the seven-year, $100 million contract he signed last spring -- are simply a byproduct of his work ethic. So, there's no sense of wonder.

"Nothing surprises me," he said. "If you're getting the blessing from the Lord and working hard, I don't know why you want to be surprised about what you do."

He doesn't let up in the dining room, either, eating enough to stay strong while other players lose weight during the long season. Last year, Pujols estimated he was 7-8 pounds heavier at the end of the season.

"What I do is get fat," Pujols said. "That's the way I survive. I don't want to get too heavy but I also don't want to get too skinny, so that's why I eat."

Everything isn't perfect for Pujols, but it's close enough. The left heel injury that bothered Pujols all last season, plantar fasciitis, has responded so far to sound wave treatment and there's no trace of a limp.

In January at the team's Winter Warmup in St. Louis, Pujols had expressed concern about the heel while serving notice that he didn't intend to play through such an injury again without sitting from time to time to take treatment. Now, he's hardly concerned.

"You guys were concerned about it, somebody took it to the next level," Pujols said. "I never felt the way people made it on the news and on TV and all of that. I feel great."

La Russa said simply: "He got it taken care of during the winter. He regretted his comments."

Not long after getting his break in 2000 only because Bobby Bonilla had a hamstring injury, Pujols became one of the biggest stars in the game -- and there's been no letup despite the heel injury last season and a strained ligament in his throwing arm in 2003.

Pujols shakes off last fall's World Series disappointment. After leading the major leagues with 105 victories, one off the franchise record, and then beating Astros ace Roger Clemens to advance to the Cardinals' first World Series in 17 seasons, St. Louis got swept by the Red Sox.

Pujols batted .333 in the series but with no RBIs, one third of a major power drain in the middle of the lineup that included Scott Rolen (0-for-15, one RBI) and Jim Edmonds (1-for-15, 1 RBI). Now, it's a new year.

"That's the way it goes," Pujols said. "Every year you have to prove yourself. We had a great year last year, we won a lot of games, but it's over."

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