For a long time, I never had a hero.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. I had many growing up. Ballplayers, mostly. My parents like to joke that I was born holding a baseball glove, which isn’t too far from the truth. Even now, years after I played my last game, I often dream I’m hitting a baseball. Those dreams are so convincing that my body will turn in my sleep to swing at a pitch that exists only in my mind. I always wake not knowing if I’d missed or put one in the seats.
Baseball was a part of me. It still is.
Which is why I often turn to the game for solace during those long and dark months of winter. My shelves are lined with tomes of baseball history. I recently added another.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of Pujols: More than the Game, by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth, courtesy of a friend who thought I might enjoy it.
I did. So much so that it’s gotten me thinking.
For those of you who don’t know, Albert Pujols is a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals. A good one. So good, in fact, that at the tender age of thirty-one, he’s already considered among the best to ever play the game.
I knew that.
He is a nine-time All-star, a three-time MVP, a batting champion, a Silver Slugger, and the National League Rookie of the Year in 2001.
I knew that, too.
What I didn’t know before reading this book was the man behind the uniform, the Clark Kent to his proverbial Superman. Honestly, the prospect of that left me cynical. Remember, I’d spent years without a hero, and for good reason. When a boy grows up admiring athletes who turn out to be gamblers and drug addicts, it’s the play on the field that becomes most important. What happens off it is usually reduced to boys being boys.
But not Albert.
I didn’t know that.
I could tell you the stories I read in those pages. Of how Albert was born in a neglected neighborhood in the Dominican Republic and raised by an alcoholic father he adored nonetheless. Of how he said, “Sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat for breakfast, but if we could eat lunch and dinner, we weren’t poor.” Or how his family moved to New York when Albert was sixteen, but then left for Missouri weeks later when he witnessed a shooting.
I could tell you of his rise to the major leagues or his love for Deidre, his wife. I could tell you of Buddy Walk in the Park Day, “when children with Down syndrome went on field during pregame ceremonies, rubbing shoulders and running the bases with big leaguers.” Two boys asked Albert to hit home runs for him that day. He hit three.
I could tell you that and more. But I won’t. Because that’s not Albert Pujols.
Albert Pujols is the man who says, “Every time I go out there, it’s to glorify God.”
He is the man who considers his faith to be a verb instead of a noun. Who, along with his wife, started the Pujols Family Foundation to “benefit people with Down syndrome, disabilities and/or life threatening illnesses, and children and families living in impoverished conditions in the Dominican Republic.”
He is the man who said, “What people don’t understand is that this work is what I’ve been put on earth to do, and when baseball’s gone and I’m not famous, I’m still going to be doing this work because this is what God’s called me to do.”
Albert Pujols is the only baseball player I’ve ever heard of who thinks he’s not called to play baseball. He’s called to help people.
Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Almost impossible to believe. That a famous, multi-millionaire athlete could see his life in such a manner.
What was even more impossible was how I felt when the book was over—that Albert’s Clark Kent was even better than his Superman.
In an age of steroids and lurid tales and unbridled pessimism, not just of celebrities but of everyone, what we need is not more transparency, but more honesty. More light in the dark places.
Yes, even grown men need heroes. Maybe grown men most of all.
Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on Albert in March 2009. The cover shows him staring into the camera with a bat on his shoulder. The headline read, “Albert Pujols Has a Message: Don’t Be Afraid to Believe in Me.”