KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On the day Barry Bonds hit his 714th(*) career home run, the best player in baseball was here at Kauffman Stadium putting the fear of wood into the Kansas City Royals. At least, I think it was Kansas City. There were so many red T-shirts and replica jerseys in the sellout crowd of 40,516 that I had to make sure the Royals' team color was still blue.
Cardinals fans are more loyal than the family Labrador, plus they don't lick your face. They've also got the baseball IQ of Einstein. Drive four hours from St. Louis to see a ballgame? Sure. Doesn't everybody?
Saturday evening they were here to watch baseball's winningest team (tied with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers) beat baseball's losingest team, 4-2. But they were also here to watch a home run quest you can actually embrace, as opposed to the joyless effort of the one-dimensional Bonds. In short, they were here to watch the 402nd selection in the June 1999 free-agent draft -- some guy named Jose Alberto Pujols.
Pujols now has 22 dingers (he hit one Saturday and No. 22 Sunday), which is only five less than the entire Royals roster. He leads the majors in homers, RBI, runs, total bases, slugging percentage and compliments received. He's also the leading cause of whiplash among opposing pitchers.
"He compares with anybody who's played the game," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
The question is, will he exceed them by career's end? No player in big league history reached 200 home runs and 1,000 hits faster than Pujols. No player reached 19 homers in a single season faster than Pujols did this year. And few players are hosed down with praise like Pujols is by teammates and opponents alike.
Royals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who spent last season with the Cardinals, says he would make Pujols his first pick if he were building a big league team. It isn't just the numbers that separate Pujols. It's the way he earns those numbers.
"Team player," says Grudzielanek, paying Pujols the ultimate ballplayer-to-ballplayer compliment. "There are some guys who are not team players. He is. I think he's the total package. The confidence that he has, the drive he has every day, day in, day out, is unbelievable."
Grudzielanek, who has spent 11 seasons in the bigs, isn't easily impressed. But during his stay with the Cardinals he asked his friend Pujols if the All-Star first baseman would autograph a jersey for him. "And I don't do a whole lot of that," he says.
There's no need to explain. Ballplayers recognize once-in-a-generation type of talent. I would have asked him to sign two of those No. 5 jerseys.
Pujols might be the only right-handed hitter I've seen with a swing as elegant as a left-hander's. There is no lunging, grunting, or flailing. Even his strikeouts are pretty.
On Saturday, he walked into the visitors clubhouse a little before 2:30 p.m., nearly four hours before the first pitch. He watched videotape of Royals starter Denny Bautista. He watched video of his at-bats from the previous night's game. He made a brief visit to the trainer's room. About 40 minutes before the Cardinals had to report to the field for stretching, Pujols was in the indoor batting cage working on his swing. What he was working on, I have no idea. But whatever it was, I felt sorry for Bautista.
Then he stretched, took ground balls, and made his way toward the batting cage. Cardinals fans stood 10 deep near the railings, watching in awe as Pujols worked the ball from right field, to center field, and then slowly to left. Only one of his 25 BP hacks cleared the fences, but Pujols didn't care. This wasn't Home Run Derby. This was BP artistry.
"Tough competitor," says La Russa."That's really what it's about. It's not about showcasing your skills. It's about competiting with those skills."
Pujols competes like he's a strikeout away from being sent to Triple A Memphis, like he was, well, picked in the 13th round of the draft and initially offered a dinky $10,000 signing bonus after playing at Maple Woods College in Kansas City.
Grudzielanek tells me to watch the intensity of Pujols' at-bats. "He just doesn't throw an at-bat away," he says. La Russa says to admire the way Pujols "plays the scoreboard." In other words, Pujols shapes his hitting strategy to the situation in the game.
"Somebody taught him," says La Russa. "I've told him many times I'd like to meet the man, whoever it was, who taught him to play the game."
The man is Pujols. He had help, of course. High school and college coaches. Minor league coaches. Cardinals coaches. Teammates. Opponents. But in many ways, Pujols is self taught.
"Pretty much," he says. "I make sure I listen. I try to learn. I'm still learning ... But pretty much, I'll try to correct, myself, any error that I make, or mistakes, and try to learn."
If Pujols is impressed by his hellacious start he doesn't show it. He never does. Rather than keep the ball he hit for homer No. 20, Pujols gave it to La Russa for use in a charity auction. He seems almost bored with himself.
"It's not about yourself," he says. "If you help out your team to win, the numbers and everything is going to be there for you."
Pujols steps to the plate for the first time at 6:11 p.m. Fans seated near the Cardinals' on-deck circle pull out their cellphones and start clicking pictures. History.
Pujols wears a shin guard on his left lower leg. He waves shyly to home plate umpire Randy Marsh. He taps the back leg of Royals catcher John Buck with his bat. Then he takes his stance, his right shoe (Nike makes his cleats with a cross stiched in the shoe tongue for the religious Pujols) just touching the back chalk line in the batter's box. Five pitches later he flies out to center field.
His next at-bat, in the third inning, also lasts five pitches. This time he grounds out to third. In the sixth inning, he grounds out to short, also on the fifth pitch.
With the Cardinals leading 1-0 and runners on first and second with no outs in the eighth, Pujols faces Royals reliever Ambiorix Burgos. The two have never faced each other.
Burgos throws one pitch. Moments later it lands in the lush grass just beyond the 410-foot marking on the left-center wall. A stadium security worker retrieves the home run ball later in the inning.
"Fairly OK clutch hit," says La Russa afterward. "First time he's ever seen the guy."
Pujols' detailed explanation of the three-run dinger: "See the ball and hit it. That's it."
It can't be that easy, can it? For Pujols, it seems to be ridiculously easy, though the ice wrap on his back and left leg say otherwise.
"I've played with some good ones and he's definitely in the top three," says Royals outfielder and former Pujols teammate Reggie Sanders, who lists Bonds and Tony Gwynn on his short list. "He seems to get better and better each year, which is scary."
Scary for pitchers. Wonderful for us.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.