Professional sports produces many great stars but only a few who are serious disciples of Jesus Christ. There are many professing Christians in baseball, to site just one sports context, but there are far less players who practice their faith in a consistent manner and remain spiritually grounded in their private family lives. One of the truly great stories I’ve followed for years is that of St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols (pronounce the “j” as an “h”). I first learned of Pujols conversion and faith some years ago via The Christian Athlete, the magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I was invited to contribute an article to this publication. In the issue that my article appeared in Albert was the cover story. Since then I have followed his career with more than passing interest.
I recall a former major-league baseball player, now a minister, saying to me many years ago over dinner in our home: “Major League Baseball (MLB) is represented by people who are pretty much like a cross section of the various kinds of people you meet day-to-day in culture except these guys have more opportunity to do bad or good.” Albert Pujols has clearly done a great deal of good. Those who love the game, and the Christian faith, will thus enjoy the forthcoming biography: Pujols: More Than a Game (Thomas Nelson), by authors Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth. (The release date is late February so you can pre-order the book at a good price via the hyperlink I provide here.)
Author Scott Lamb asked me to review an advance copy of the Pujols biography, knowing from my blog that I have a great love for the game of baseball. I was happy to comply. Now that I know so much more about the real Albert Pujols I am an even bigger fan than ever.
After only ten seasons, which is potentially only half a good career in baseball, Albert Pujols has done things on the field that very few players have ever accomplished. His statistics, in a sport that thrives on statistics, are simply mind numbing. He clearly is one of the greatest players to ever play this game! When he retires he will be a sure-fire Hall of Fame inductee. His offensive numbers are ridiculous and intense pressure in big games only makes him a better player. Time and time again I have seen Albert come to bat against the team I have cheered for since I was eight years old, the Atlanta Braves. And time and time again he will crush my team when the game was on the line. If I was a pitcher I would fear this guy more than any other hitter in the game. But Albert is more than a great hitter. He has learned how to be a better than average fielder after playing several different positions early in his career. (He now plays first base as his primary position.)
In the foreword of this new book Joe Posnanski says, “Albert Pujols has the chance to be known as the greatest player in the history of baseball.” He provides numerous statistical measurements to make this point. At age thirty Pujols has more home runs than Babe Ruth, more hits than Pete Rose, more RBIs than Hank Aaron, and more runs than Rickey Henderson at the same age. If you know the sport, and those great names, you are impressed.
What is even more amazing about Albert Pujols is that less than two years before he began one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history he was a non-prospect. He was playing at a community college in Kansas City and no scout even had him on their radar. No one saw his great career coming, no one. After he signed a professional contract Albert only spent one year in the minors and was an instant star. He began his MLB career on Opening Day 2001 and proceeded to play all season, batting .327, with 47 doubles, 37 homers, 130 RBIs and 112 runs scored. And he was just getting started. I could tell a lot of stories about Pujols’ athletic prowess and accomplishments but if you are a fan of this great game please read the book. It is filled with wonderful stories and demonstrates just how great he really is. Even if you don’t know the game, believe me when I say it, this is the best all-around hitter today. (St. Louis has him signed through this season. The big concern is can they keep him for the rest of his career. I think they would be crazy not to make it happen since he is the face of their franchise.)
But all the baseball exploits aside Albert Pujols is an impressive young man. The son of an alcoholic father from the Dominican Republic Albert left for America at age 16 to live with several of his relatives in New York. He would later settle in Independence, Missouri, where he would find the environment he needed to perfect his God-given skills on a baseball field.
At age 18 Albert met his wife Deidre, or Dee Dee. She had lived a tough life herself. After she had given birth to a Down syndrome child (Isabella) at age 20 (born out of wedlock) she met Albert, a mature young man with a vision for life. They quickly fell in love. Dee Dee had been exposed to the gospel in Kansas City, attending an evangelical church, and her life was slowly changing as she came to embrace and understand the faith. Albert, a serious young man with solid core values (gained especially from his grandmother) was drawn to her and her faith. He would embrace Isabella and her baby openly. Albert and Dee Dee would eventually become leaders in St. Louis for Down syndrome children, establishing an impressive and highly visible foundation. They are also deeply invested in a number of other charities and Christian missions.
I was invited to do a number of MLB chapel services in my earlier years. I’ve had the joy of meeting a few of the greatest stars in the game. I did a chapel in St. Louis some years ago and enjoyed meeting several St. Louis Cardinals players. I have seen how the game goes on the inside of the clubhouse and the lives of players, past and present. This all made me particularly interested in how Albert handles his faith within the game. When a baserunner is standing on first Albert Pujols will take this an opportunity to ask the opposing player, “If you died today, where do you think you would go?” (I am sure there are very few such conversations on the base paths of MLB games so I will watch Albert more closely in the years ahead to see this conversation happening.)
What is most impressive about Albert Pujols is the mature approach he takes to his faith. He not only speaks openly about Christ but he lives his faith in love and good deeds. He approaches the game as his God-given vocation and takes every part of it seriously. This has caused some to misjudge him as being sullen or angry. The reality is that he is serious and plays every play as hard as he can. He is focused and locked in when he prepares for and plays a game. A true fan can appreciate this and thus should be slow to judge him if they think he is not as easy-going as they would like.
This book is a genuinely fun read for any baseball fan, young or old. Because it has a lot of baseball statistics and facts it might not interest the non-fan quite as much. What clearly sets it apart from other baseball biographies, however, is the story of the man himself. This story is very well-told by Lamb and Ellsworth, accomplished and gifted writers. I pray many will come to faith by reading their account of the greatest baseball player of our time. Pujols: More Than a Game would make a great gift for a young fan who wants to see what the life of a truly great star, and genuinely godly man, is really like. I have a few friends I intend to give this book to when it comes out next month. And during the years ahead I will pray for Albert and Dee Dee that they will remain faithful and effective in their kingdom mission.
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Even though I am a Cub fan and Pujols terrorizes the Cubs like he does every other team, I am really happy for the guy and his Christian testimony. I just hope we don’t find out that he used steroids. It seems that (almost literally) every big time home run hitter has used them the last 10 years.